Scientists use antispam technology in AIDS vaccine work

Microsoft Corp. researchers are targeting computer algorithms developed for fighting spam at a very different enemy: HIV, the forerunner of the AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) disease.

Two Microsoft computer scientists, David Heckerman and Nebojsa Jojic, are part of a team presenting Wednesday at a Boston AIDS research conference an overview of their work on using software programs to uncover patterns in HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) genetic mutation. The pair are collaborating with bioengineers from Australia's Royal Perth Hospital and the University of Washington in Seattle to examine HIV's wild mutation patterns, a better understanding of which researchers see as a key step toward developing broadly effective AIDS vaccines.

Microsoft uses complex data-mining tools to help its Outlook e-mail software and Hotmail e-mail service comb through the vast torrent of incoming messages to separate spam from legitimate e-mail. With spammers ever-adjusting their messages to beat automated filters, spam-detection tools also need to dynamically evolve and flexibly seek out changing patterns.

The catalyst for the alliance between Microsoft's researchers and medical scientists was the idea that software designed to link "VIAGRA" and "V1AGXA" might also be adept at tracking DNA sequence mutations. If scientists can find stable sequences that persist through multiple HIV strains, they can more effectively craft vaccines to target those areas.

Simon Mallal, executive director of the Royal Perth Hospital's Centre for Clinical Immunology and Biomedical Statistics, credits Microsoft's technology with enabling the medical research team to sift through patient data 10 times faster than any previous research technique.

The group's vaccine designs are currently undergoing laboratory testing at Perth and the University of Washington, using immune cell samples taken from HIV-infected patients. Researchers expect to release initial results later this year, but they're already optimistic about the research technique, suggesting it could also be used for work on hepatitis C and other mutating viruses.

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