Fighting HIV with antispam tools

Spam-filtering technology may soon save millions of lives, thanks to the technology's potential use in developing a vaccine to fight the deadly human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Researchers are conducting in vitro tests of HIV vaccine models developed using Microsoft's anti-spam software, according to Kevin Schofield, general manager, Microsoft Research in Redmond, Washington.

The project, he said, is a joint initiative between Microsoft Research, the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle, and the Royal Perth Hospital in Australia.

The great similarity between how spam works and how HIV cells mutate in the human body has allowed researchers to use Microsoft's machine learning and data mining algorithms to analyze the virus's genetic sequences. The purpose was to identify patterns within the genetic mutations of the virus and the patient's immune system, according to Schofield.

These patterns are then used to create vaccine designs that have more HIV-fighting genetic markers.

In a very similar way, anti-spam software detects patterns, such as common words or phrases, enabling it to identify legitimate e-mails and prevent spam from getting into the system, said Schofield.

Using Microsoft's data mining technology, researchers were able to search through millions of HIV strains and find genetic patterns more efficiently than previous methods, according to documents obtained from Microsoft Research.

"There is a lot of technology that goes into how you choose those representative pieces. It turns out these technologies work for both spam and with developing HIV vaccine," Schofield said.

Aside from anti-spam technology, the researchers also relied on other software algorithms used for database management and compressing digital files.

"Microsoft Research's contributions enabled us to filter patient data 10 times faster than any previous research technique we've used," Royal Perth Hospital's Simon Mallal said in a statement. He is the executive director of the hospital's Centre for Clinical Immunology and Biomedical Statistics.

"These Microsoft Research technologies weren't initially conceived as medical research tools, but they may prove critical to the ongoing battle to slow down or halt HIV and other deadly viruses," said Dr. James Mullins, professor at UW's department of microbiology.

The World Health Organization has reported that AIDS has claimed the lives of nearly 30 million people worldwide. Forty million people today have HIV and close to five million are infected each year.

Since the project commenced about two years ago other research institutions have signed up to participate, including Massachusetts General Hospital and the University of Toronto, said Schofield.

He said according to researchers, it would take between five and ten years before they begin testing the vaccine on humans.

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