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Preparing for Transformation: How Convergence in Computer Science and Biology Could Fuel the Next Healthcare Revolution

December 22, 2010 | By Microsoft blog editor

Computers have increased the reach of biological science, altering the path of medicine with such revolutions as human genome sequencing—which is already causing a shift in treatment approach from epidemiological (based on patterns in the general population) to care that is tailored to individuals.

Center for Computational and Systems BiologyResearchers attending the fifth anniversary of the Microsoft Research-University of Trento Centre for Computational and Systems Biology (COSBI) believe it’s time to take a more active role in developing the computer systems and tools needed to further transform the healthcare industry. The event, which took place November 30 through December 3 in Trento, Italy, examined the topic “Merging Knowledge: From Programming Languages to Personalized Healthcare.”

“It appears that systems medicine will transform medicine over the next 5 to 20 years from its currently reactive state to a mode that is proactive—medicine that is predictive, personalized, preventive, and participatory (P4),” says Leroy Hood, president of the Institute for Systems Biology. “P4 medicine will have striking implications for healthcare costs as well as leading to a transformation of the healthcare industry.”

Success will require a change in approach and investment in the right technologies. “There is great excitement and potential for the use of computer-science solutions to enhance biology-related disciplines, both in the scientific community and in the industrial community,” states Corrado Priami, COSBI president and CEO. “Therefore, our idea of investing in the design and development of an integrated artificial plug-in based biological laboratory, connecting computational modeling with experiments, and built on top of a (programming) language for biology is the right strategy to lead the innovation wave at which we will assist in the next years.”

In particular, the study of nutrigenomics—or interactions between nutrients and genes—could unlock the key to more effective treatment and prevention of diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular diseases. “Developing individual risk factors in light of the genetic diversity of human populations; the complexity of foods, culture, and lifestyle; and the variety of metabolic processes that lead to health or disease are significant challenges for personalizing dietary advice for healthy or medical treatments for individuals with chronic disease,” reports James Kaput of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “New research and application strategies are needed for creating knowledge for personalizing nutrition advice and healthcare.”

Achieving these results is possible only with the proper set of conceptual and computational tools, which can extract knowledge from data—as happened in major scientific fields in recent years with the move to eScience methods of distributed computing and collaboration.

At the conference, top speakers from the center’s scientific reference community discussed recent findings that can enable and propel personalized healthcare with system-level understanding of interactions between molecular machinery of organisms and diseases, between drugs and multi-signaling networks, between nutrients and metabolism of organisms, and between food production and environment through the exploitation of programming language technology.

Here are some highlights:

    • Tony Hoare described Process Algebra, a model that formulates abstract mathematical equations that describe general properties of an important class of phenomena in the real world. Originally, Process Algebra was applied primarily to what happens inside computers and computer networks, but now it has been extended and is applied to biological phenomena at various scales of granularity and abstraction.
    • Leroy Hood explained how emerging computing technology can dramatically impact system biology and system medicine.
    • Andrew Herbert spoke on “Medical and Biological Topics at Microsoft Research Cambridge” (watch a webcast on this topic).
    • Jeannette M. Wing, President’s Professor of Computer Science and department head of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, gave a visionary talk on how computing is creating a new revolutionary computational thinking paradigm.

    • Daron Green, general manager of the External Research division of Microsoft Research, described how existing tools can be used to improve the way in which data and information are discovered/shared/visualized. He also discussed lessons learned from collaborative research engagements that are associated with realizing External Research’s vision for the Computational Paradigm.

—Fabrizio Gagliardi, Director of EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa), the External Research division of Microsoft Research