Cellular reprogramming

A team of computer scientists, programmers, engineers, and other experts are working in Microsoft labs to investigate a virus that infects a complex network: cancer. Specifically, the team is working on better ways to diagnose and treat cancer.

“I think it’s a very natural thing for Microsoft to be looking at because we have tremendous expertise in computer science and what is going on in cancer is a computational problem," says Chris Bishop, laboratory director at Microsoft Research.

The most intriguing effort is in the development of a technology that Microsoft believes would allow scientists to reprogram cells to fight diseases like cancer. Researchers are working on developing a computer made from DNA that can live inside human cells and spot bodily ailments, like cancer. If it spots potentially cancerous cells, this computer would then reboot the system, so to speak, to clear out the ailing cells.

Microsoft qualifies this project as a moonshot, but the researchers are confident. “It’s long term, but… I think it will be technically possible in five to 10 years time to put in a smart molecular system that can detect disease,” says Andrew Philips, head of Microsoft's biological computation group.

Pushing cancer research forward

“If we are able to control and regulate cancer then it becomes like any chronic disease and then the problem is solved,” says Dr. Jasmin Fisher, senior researcher and associate professor at Cambridge University.

Microsoft Research's programming principles and tools group already made a software capable of mimicking the behavior of a healthy cell. This can be used in addition to a diseased cell's behavior to better understand how it got sick and how it can be repaired.

Apart from the cellular reprogramming project, Microsoft's labs are working on three other cancer-related projects: (a) a technology that improves scanning using machine learning and computer vision, for better tumor tracking; (b) a system that allows for better organization of patients' data records for improved personalized cancer treatment  — similar to IBM's Watson Oncology project — using machine learning and natural language processing; and (c) powerful algorithms to better understand cancer development and which treatments can best fight them.

"I think for some of the cancers five years, but definitely within a decade. Then we will probably have a century free of cancer," Fisher believes.

It's evident that Microsoft is hopeful, and that they've assembled a capable team. However, since the research is still in the early stages, there's no guarantee that this ambitious project will lead to success.

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