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Fighting AIDS with Microsoft Windows

A Microsoft researcher is using anti-spam efforts to fight the HIV virus.

Every once in awhile, Microsoft does something very right. Microsoft's anti-spam technology and a Windows server farm, along with some innovative thinking from Microsoft researcher David Heckerman, are cracking the AIDS code.

Why is Microsoft in the AIDS research game? Because it's in the anti-spam game, and it turns out there are some similarities between the two:

This parallel between spam and biology resonated for Heckerman, a physician as well as a PhD in computer science. It didn't take him long to realize that his spam-blocking tool could extend far beyond junk e-mail, into the realm of life science. In 2003, he surprised colleagues in Redmond, Wash., by refocusing the spam-blocking technology on one of the world's deadliest, fastest- mutating conundrums: HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS.

Heckerman was plunging into medicine--and carrying Microsoft with him. When he brought his plan to Bill Gates, the company chairman "got really excited," Heckerman says. Well versed on HIV from his philanthropy work, Gates lined up Heckerman with AIDS researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, the University of Washington, and elsewhere.

Since then, the 50-year-old Heckerman and two colleagues have created their own biology niche at Microsoft, where they build HIV-detecting software. These are research tools to spot infected cells and correlate the viral mutations with the individual's genetic profile. Heckerman's team runs mountains of data through enormous clusters of 320 computers, operating in parallel. Thanks to smarter algorithms and more powerful machines, they're sifting through the data 480 times faster than a year ago. In June, the team released its first batch of tools for free on the Internet.

I think this is absolutely brilliant. This is the sort of cross-industry innovation that I believe the software world should do more often. I suspect that we could learn a great deal from other industries and, in turn, would have much to teach others.

Open source, for its part, is really a way of making software behave the way most of the economy behaves: as a service, rather than as an infinitely reproducible and near infinitely profitable good. Sure, it would be nice to much from doing little, but that's not the way markets work. Not for long, anyway. Open source brings competition back to software, in a deep and poignant way.

Open source, of course, is no panacea, just as Microsoft is not the end to HIV anytime soon. But that's not the point. The point is that every new angle on the problem offers a greater chance of finding a cure. As BusinessWeek concludes:

The hunt goes on. No one is betting on miracles from Microsoft. But in a research community desperate for answers, the hum of those computers churning in Redmond is a welcome sound.