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Microsoft Research applying spam-fighting techniques to attack HIV

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Microsoft Research is collaborating with the Ragon Institute, using its expertise in fighting spam to seek weaknesses in HIV.

David Heckerman
David Heckerman

Scientists at Microsoft Research are collaborating with members of the Ragon Institute — a joint venture of MIT, Harvard, and Massachusetts General Hospital dedicated to discovering an effective HIV / AIDS vaccine — to combat the devastating illness in a rather unusual way. It turns out that the way HIV mutates over time can be likened to an email spammer trying to defeat a sophisticated spam filter, in that the virus is always looking for new ways to defeat the human immune system; Microsoft, then, was able to re-purpose techniques and algorithms it has developed over the years for fighting spam to seek out those mutations efficiently and accurately. The team created an app called PhyloD to crunch raw data coming in from Ragon's researchers and loaded it into the company's data center, which allowed it to process massive data sets and return the results to Ragon quickly. As Microsoft's David Heckerman says, "[Ragon director Bruce Walker] gave us the problem on Friday. On Monday, we had a completed analysis for him." Who knew spam could be sent for the greater good?