How Microsoft wants to ‘solve cancer’ using computer science

An image of the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington.

An image of the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington.

Could coders solve cancer in the same way they tackle computer science problems?

Microsoft is hoping the answer is yes. The company has revealed details of its latest research on Tuesday, saying it is aiming to “solve cancer using computer science.”

Researchers at Microsoft’s lab in Cambridge, England, are trying to map the “code” of the disease, hoping that once they understand how the problem occurs, they’d be able to re-program cancer cells into healthy cells.

Jasmin Fisher, who is a senior researcher at the lab and also a professor at the biochemistry department at Cambridge University, said she and her colleagues are trying to think about cancer in the same way computer scientists think about computer programs.

“If you can figure out how to build these programs, and then you can debug them, it’s a solved problem,” she said.

Microsoft didn’t say how much money it is investing into the program, but its spokesperson said around 150 people work in the research center in Cambridge. They range from computer scientists to biologists and engineers.

Cancer Research U.K., the world’s largest independent cancer research charity, said this multi-disciplinary approach is key to medical progress.

“Cancer is a very complex problem as there are more than 200 different types and everybody’s cancer is unique. So it’s a challenge that needs many different approaches to solve it,” said Justine Alford, the charity’s senior science information officer.

“We hope this ambitious project will lead to discoveries that help in the battle against cancer,” she said.

Microsoft revealed details of several of its cancer research initiatives on Tuesday. It said one group of researchers is using machine learning to sort through research data available to help oncologists figure out the best treatment options.

That’s where machines are already making a difference. An oncologist looking after a number of patients is not able to go through all the available data to figure out the most effective, individualized cancer treatment for each of them. But a powerful computer can do that.

“We’ve reached the point where we are drowning in information. We can measure so much, and because we can, we do,” Fisher said. “How do you take that information and turn that into knowledge? That’s a different story,” she added.

IBM Watson uses similar technology already, helping oncologists analyze patients’ medical information against research data to suggest treatment options.

Microsoft is not the first big tech company to turn to medical research. Apple has launched an open-source tool for creating medical studies called ResearchKit last year. It gathers medical information from Apple’s giant pool of users, making it available for researchers.

Google X, Google research lab, is also working on a variety of medical research programs. They include the use of cloud computing and nanotechnologies.