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Understanding the Immune Response to HIV

HIV killed 260,000 children in 2009 with a disproportionate number of deaths in sub-Saharan Africa (HIV, Wikipedia; UNAIDS Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic 2010, Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS). Even in the United States, while no longer a death sentence, HIV requires expensive, life-long treatment. In 2011, investigators from the Ragon Institute of Massachusetts General Hospital, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Harvard University; Imperial College London; the National Cancer Research Institute; and Microsoft Research showed, for the first time, that the immune system’s natural killer (NK) cells play a direct role in fighting HIV. This knowledge opens a new path of research into ways to beat the virus.

Scientists have long known that NK cells play an important role in the control of viral infections, mounting short-lived but highly toxic assaults on infected cells. It’s logical to expect that NK cells would play a role in the control of HIV infections, and, in fact, various in-vitro and epidemiological studies suggest that NK cells do just that. However, it remained unknown whether NK cells directly mediate anti-HIV immune pressure inside the human body.

The first tell-tale signs that NK cells were affecting HIV were found by using a sophisticated software tool that was developed at Microsoft Research. The tool used almost a CPU-year of computation to sift through millions of possible clues as to how our immune system interacts with this deadly virus.

Subsequent clinical and laboratory work that was performed by our instructional collaborators resulted in evidence that the virus mutates in response to NK cell activity—by inference, confirming that NK cells play a direct role in fighting HIV. This knowledge opens a new path of research into ways to beat the virus, helping physicians in their long-running battle with HIV and AIDS.

Multiple Microsoft .NET and Windows HPC Server-based Microsoft technologies are being used in this effort to facilitate efficient software development and computing. In addition, the knowledge gained from working with scientists on the complex computational scenarios in this project has helped Microsoft make improvement to Windows HPC Server.

Learn more about this research:

Primary Researchers

Marcus Altfeld

Marcus Altfeld, M.D., Ph.D., is the director of the Program for Innate Immunity at the Partners AIDS Research Center (PARC) and the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and is an associate professor at Harvard Medical School. He received his M.D./Ph.D. from the University of Cologne in Germany in 1997, and subsequently worked as a resident in the Department of Medicine at the University of Bonn. After receiving his diploma in Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (DTM&H) at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, he joined PARC as a research fellow in 1999, and became a member of the faculty in 2001.

David Heckerman

David Heckerman, Ph.D., is a Microsoft Distinguished Scientist and senior director of the eScience group at Microsoft Research.His research interest is focused on learning from data. The models and methods he uses are inspired by work in the fields of statistics and data analysis, machine learning, probability theory, decision theory, decision analysis, and artificial intelligence. His recent work has concentrated on using graphical models for data analysis and visualization in biology and medicine with a special focus on the design of HIV vaccines.

Carl Kadie

Carl Kadie, Ph.D., is principal research software design engineer in eScience at Microsoft Research. He is also an affiliate of the Machine Learning and Applied Statistics (MLAS) and Adaptive Systems and Interaction (ASI) groups at Microsoft Research. Kadie is interested in creating practical machine learning algorithms for recommendation, spam detection, and, most recently, biology.