Microsoft bug-testing software brings breakthroughs in stem cell research

Stem cells form the basis of all tissues in the body and have unique regenerative abilities. They are able to divide more or less without limit, and each time they divide, they may remain as a stem cell, or become a different kind of cell entirely, such as a brain cell or red blood cell. Their extraordinary properties make them capable of repairing damaged tissue, to heal impaired organs or even to grow into entirely new ones. 

But scientists have remained uncertain for some time as to exactly how stem cells 'decide' which type of tissue they eventually become. While researchers attempt to use embryonic stem cells to aid with restoring vision or in treating spinal injuries, their efforts have been hindered by the enduring mystery of how these cells differentiate into other tissues. 

But thanks in no small part to Microsoft Research - and a rather creative application of techniques used in software debugging - scientists are beginning to understand more about stem cells and their behaviour. 

Sara-Jane Dunn (pictured) is a scientist with the Biological Computation group at Microsoft Research's Computational Science Laboratory. She explained to New Scientist that the approach to understanding stem cell behaviour required a 'more deterministic, reliable method' than the more hit-and-miss approach that had previously been applied. 

Working with fellow scientists at the University of Cambridge in the UK and Italy's University of Padua, the team established this method by first framing the problem in the context of computation. 

They then attacked the problem using Microsoft software tools, that employ rigorous mathematical techniques known as 'formal verification', to help with their understanding. These formal analysis tools and techniques are used to help remove bugs from its Windows operating systems and applications.

As New Scientist explains: "Formal verification examines the algorithms in a piece of software to check that the output will always be what the programmer intended. But it can also work back from the output to infer the nature of the algorithm creating it - just what Dunn's team required."

By applying the same principles used to remove bugs from Windows, the team soon learned that the way that a stem cell 'decides' what it will become is far simpler than had previously been thought. Research is now focused on a deeper understanding of the underlying processes behind stem cell differentiation, and Microsoft's software will again play an important part in this. 

The research team found that they were able to predict - with around 70% accuracy - how a stem cell would respond to genetic changes and thus, what that cell would ultimately become. Chris Mason, a regenerative medicine specialist at University College London, said: "It's remarkable. I have never seen anything like it."

He noted that if the research continues as expected, and is able to shed light on the "molecular program behind differentiation", it would pave the way for more efficient and reliable stem cell growth in labs. This could, ultimately, have a profound impact on the treatment of patients in the future. 

Mason said of the collaboration between Microsoft and the scientific community: "World-class stem cell scientists and a world-class computer company have found common ground. It is work at such interfaces that brings the big breakthroughs." 

Source: New Scientist via WinBeta | Upper image via Microsoft; scientist in laboratory image via Shutterstock

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19 Comments

-adrian- said,
I could imagine doing some research with her

Can't even go two comments without some very thinly veiled sexual innuendo. How ######ing old are you?

siah1214 said,

Can't even go two comments without some very thinly veiled sexual innuendo. How ######ing old are you?

Don't act to sensitive for god's sake.

siah1214 said,

Can't even go two comments without some very thinly veiled sexual innuendo. How ######ing old are you?

Get of your hypersensitive high horse and have a laugh.

siah1214 said,

Can't even go two comments without some very thinly veiled sexual innuendo. How ######ing old are you?
What if they are in their hormonal teens? Are you saying expressing sexual desires is wrong? For shame on you!

siah1214 said,

Can't even go two comments without some very thinly veiled sexual innuendo. How ######ing old are you?

Old enough to work in research :)

SierraSonic said,
.... expressing sexual desires is wrong? For shame on you!

Yes. When the article is clearly about someone doing groundbreaking work, comments like this devalue the individual and perpetuate the misogynistic rape culture we should be beyond at this point in human history.

deadonthefloor said,

Yes. When the article is clearly about someone doing groundbreaking work, comments like this devalue the individual and perpetuate the misogynistic rape culture we should be beyond at this point in human history.

Seriously, I hope at some point these discussions can evolve beyond "haha boobies". I guess we're not there yet.

deadonthefloor said,

Yes. When the article is clearly about someone doing groundbreaking work, comments like this devalue the individual and perpetuate the misogynistic rape culture we should be beyond at this point in human history.

Wow! Rape culture?

deadonthefloor said,

Yes. When the article is clearly about someone doing groundbreaking work, comments like this devalue the individual and perpetuate the misogynistic rape culture we should be beyond at this point in human history.
We should be beyond sex? We should stop all natural attraction! Look no matter how much you try to sugar coat it, people will always find a way to be attracted to people they are attracted to, it doesn't matter what profession they have. Asking people to not publicly announce they find someone attractive won't solve the 'problem' you believe exists. Move on, mature yourself, the best way to solve problems is not to create them out of nothing as harmless as opinion.

Wow a professional problem solver finally deigned to bring true methodology to theoretical scientists and blew their doors off. Happens too often.

So Microsoft Research should be named and credited for this help when a science journal publishes that the research is complete and stem cells are known in detail?

There is no such thing as biology known in all the details. There are always new things found, day after day. When nothing new is found, it means humanity found the solution for eternal life, and transition to god-like creature. Of course only for the top richest 1%, the rest 99% remains in slavery to maintain the status quo. I am happy as long as the top 1% also dies eventually, at least humanity is not closed into everlasting slavery (or at least the tyrants will be periodically replaced).

But its not as fun to discover stuff if the computer does it for you, Hit and miss or battleships as the boys in the lab call it is a great game!

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