Biotech is probably not the sector most associate Microsoft with. Most of us know Microsoft as the publisher of the world’s most popular personal computer operating system Windows and the Office software suite that includes Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Many will also be familiar with the company’s Xbox gaming console. And those with a reasonable general knowledge of the company or with a personal or professional interest in the IT sector will also know that one of Microsoft’s fastest expanding units is its Cloud computing service Azure.
Over the last several years Microsoft has undergone a very successful transformation into a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) business model. Gone are the days when Microsoft Office was purchased for a one-off payment and then yours for evermore. It’s now a subscription service. Microsoft’s Cloud services are also based on a pay-as-you-go model. The success of that transition to a recurring revenue model has seen Microsoft’s share price almost triple over the past three years. It was again briefly the world’s most valuable company between Apple losing that crown and Amazon bouncing back from a late-2018 correction.
Like most of the biggest tech companies, Microsoft is hoping to secure its future by investing heavily in the new technology verticals it believes will become big new business sectors over the coming years and decades. Microsoft obviously believes one of those sectors is biotech.
Microsoft today launches a major new project, ‘Station B’, in partnership with researchers at Princeton University and the UK’s Oxford BioMedica and Synthace. Both are in the biotech space with the former specialised in gene and cell therapy and letter biotech and other medical software. The project is a research system that will allow researchers to use machine learning and data analysis to engineer living cells.
The Station B platform consists of different computer programmes integrated with each other in a pattern that will allow them to analyse huge amounts of biomedical date. The output of that analysis will be advice pointing researchers in the right direction. An example would be the optimal way to edit DNA to change the way particular genes function.
Microsoft has a dedicated biotech unit, Microsoft Research Cambridge, which is based in the UK. The group’s head, Andrew Phillips, commented at the launch announcement:
“This is a big moment for us. We have been working for almost 10 years toward Station B. Now we are moving on to the next stage.”
One of the partnership’s priorities is finding better ways to engineer ‘lentiviral vectors’. These are viruses that carry ‘disease-correcting’ DNA into a patient’s cells. Engineering these vectors has, until now, been a huge trial and error projects. Station B’s algorithms should be able to learn from biomedical data how best to engineer them for particular patients, based on their personal genetics and external environmental factors. Making that process far more efficient should dramatically lower the cost of future gene therapy treatments which are generally hugely expensive.
Synthace chief scientist Markus Gershater explained:
“It is easy for people outside biology to underestimate the unpredictability of biological systems. We want to introduce more predictability.”
Princeton’s chair of molecular biology Bonnie Bassler added:
“The platform will allow us to ask more questions, get more results and do more experiments than a graduate student or postdoc, no matter how clever, can do today. So it gets us to the winning genetic constructs faster.”