Microsoft fights spam, saves lives

It's no surprise that Microsoft is involved in the search for an HIV vaccine, but what is surprising is that they're fighting the war of spam at the same time. As reported in a new blog post from Microsoft research, the methods hackers use to avoid spam filters has a lot in common with the way that the HIV virus is constantly mutating.

Microsoft is working with the Centre for the Aids Program of Research in South Africa and the Ragon Institute to test the HIV vaccine. The testing generates tons of data and that's where Microsoft comes in.

Using PhyloD, a computational biology tool developed by Microsoft, Microsoft Research's Daivd Heckerman and Jonathan Carlson are analyzing in hours amounts of data that would have taken years to sift through without Microsoft's help. Their efforts are already paying off, too; the team has already discovered six times as many possible attack points on the HIV virus than had been identified before. Testing in the field is being led by Bruce Walker, director of the Ragon Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT and Harvard. As David Heckerman explained:

When we first met Bruce, he had a very tricky problem to analyze. He had this great data set but he didn't know how to analyze it. We happened to have just the right algorithm for it and this large bank of computers at Microsoft that could do this massive amount of computation. He gave us the problem on Friday. On Monday, we had a completed analysis for him.

Before he moved on to saving the world, Heckerman had been working on the spam filter that's used in Hotmail, Outlook and Exchange. “I actually invented the spam filter,” Heckerman said. “And the first thing that happened was that spammers started working around our filter.” That's exactly the same problem that researchers are encountering with the HIV virus. “Our immune system is like a spam filter trying to block HIV, and HIV is mutating to get around the immune system. So we had the idea, let's do the same thing, let's go after the Achilles' heel of HIV."

So, there you have it. Microsoft is taking what it's learned in the fight to save us from an annoyance and applying it to a fight to save lives. Love or hate them, the world is a better place with Microsoft. From their philanthropy to their research efforts, they're not only making people's lives better, but saving them, too.

The research they're doing here is going to go a lot further than just spam and HIV. As Bruce Walker said, “Everything we learn here is going to be applicable not just to HIV but to breast cancer and prostate cancer – and will ultimately change the way medicine is practiced.”

Image courtesy of Microsoft Research


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