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Monday, April 24, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Medicine: Microsoft taking a measured approach

Seattle Times business reporter

The next time you're at the doctor, count all the measurements: blood pressure, pulse, reflexes and scores of subtle observations to assess your health.

Now imagine if doctors could quickly take thousands or millions of measurements on each patient, delving deep into genetic variations that make us unique and indicate our risk of specific diseases.

Rapidly advancing diagnostic tools already are cranking out mountains of data that make possible the emerging practice of personalized medicine. For example, expensive genetic tests are available to better predict whether a woman's breast cancer will relapse.

But to fulfill its promise of early detection and targeted treatment of such diseases as cancer, the field must overcome several hurdles, including the technical challenge of storing, sharing and analyzing ever-increasing amounts of information from disparate sources.

Microsoft this month launched a cross-industry group to address data-management problems posed by personalized medicine and other computational biology tasks. The BioIT Alliance is an effort to establish the company's products at the foundation of a field that could see explosive growth in the next decade.

Today, however, the place where biology and computing intersect — alternately called computational biology, bioinformatics or digital bio — is inhabited by a small group of specialized scientists.

Don Rule, a Microsoft platform-strategy adviser organizing the BioIT effort, estimated 50,000 work in bioinformatics. It's the kind of niche Microsoft might be expected to ignore, but Rule said the company sees big potential.

Microsoft's alliance partners, including researchers, diagnostics manufacturers and software companies, predict the technology will progress from specialized laboratories to clinical trials of experimental drugs and ultimately to doctors' offices.

"That's when this market becomes nontrivial," Rule said. "I don't know how far off that is, but it's too important to ignore."

Dr. Leroy Hood, whose Institute for Systems Biology on the north edge of Lake Union is a leader in developing personalized medicine, expects to see the technology and its uses unfold during the next five to 20 years.

"In 10 years, I think we'll be making billions of measurements on individual patients" and be able to see "with enormous clarity" the potential for and progression of disease in an individual, said Hood, whose institute received $10 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation last year.

The prospect of gathering that much personal information, however, raises the hackles of some privacy advocates and also opens questions about insurance and discrimination.

For now, the BioIT alliance is pursuing modest pilot and proof-of-concept projects, such as helping a researcher improve the way pictures of protein molecules are stored and shared. Previously, researchers would take pictures, write on them and paste them in lab notebooks. "We're talking real paste," Rule said.

"We want to enable him to pull those pictures into his information system and annotate them electronically, and enable him to find them based on the annotations," he said.

Laying a foundation

The BioIT Alliance complements efforts of Microsoft's health-care and life-sciences industry group.

Cheryl North, director of the company's pharmaceutical and life-sciences business strategy, told Northwest biotech executives last month that Microsoft has more than 500 employees in life sciences and health care. One goal in the next three years is to "build an infrastructure of people inside Microsoft who ... have deep knowledge of the biopharma industry," she said.

Computational biology fits well with other company efforts, including high-performance computing.

"To the degree that Microsoft wants to grow up into advanced server operations, that would be a pretty smart place to play," said Mark Anderson, a Friday Harbor technology commentator and consultant.

Faster, more-powerful computers are already helping scientists search more efficiently for new drugs.

"That is one of the earliest areas of commercialization," Rule said, "and we think that will be an important use for the high-performance computing product that will ship later this year."

Focus on life sciences

Windows Compute Cluster Server 2003, designed for computers that operate in unison to tackle huge tasks, is the company's first offering in this category.

Bill Gates, speaking at a supercomputing conference in Seattle last fall, said solving the challenges facing supercomputing will "help advance so many critical issues, whether it's product design or biology, inventing new medicines, understanding the environment, things that are very important to all of us."

The life sciences are particularly important to Gates, as evidenced by his investments in several biotechnology companies and the contributions by his foundation.

"It would be surprising if they weren't into this," Anderson said.

Microsoft isn't the only company looking to establish its products as the platforms of choice for computational biology.

"IBM has been exploring the space of information medicine now for three or four years, and they actually created a life-science division that's really focused on exactly this thing," said Hood, the personalized medicine researcher.

Natural fit for Google

Oracle is a major player, and the field would also be a natural fit for Google, Hood said.

Google is doing a "variety of research in the health area, including how to improve the quality of health-related search results," a Google spokeswoman said in an e-mail.

While smaller firms, including several in the Northwest, will probably build specific tools to serve computational-biology, big companies such as Microsoft could solve some of the overarching challenges. One example: standardization of data, so that its use won't be limited to the people who generated it.

"This is an enormous area of need," Hood said.

Catalyst for growth

For Seattle, Microsoft's moves will only strengthen the region's already prominent position as a center for computational biology research and entrepreneurship.

That position has been established in no small part by Gates' contributions dating back to a $12 million gift in 1991 that attracted Hood to the University of Washington from the California Institute of Technology, and a $70 million gift in 2003 to help fund a new building for UW's genome-sciences researchers.

Rick LeFaivre, a partner at OVP Venture Partners, which has made several investments in Northwest bioinformatics companies, sees Microsoft's presence as a catalyst for further growth.

"As the industrial leader in this region and worldwide in software, having them endorsing this is very important."

Benjamin J. Romano:206-464-2149 or bromano@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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