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Microsoft Forges BioIT Alliance

By Kevin Davies

April 14, 2006 | After a decade at Microsoft, working in various technology divisions, Don Rule took a month off to decide what he really wanted to do. His conclusion? “Informatics was the technology that would make a dramatic difference in life sciences in the 21st century.”

don rule jpg
Microsoft's Don Rule
Two years later, Rule’s epiphany has resulted in the creation of the BioIT Alliance. Rule says the Alliance is “unique because it brings together companies from a cross section of the industry — from biotech and Big Pharma to equipment manufacturers and software developers — to collaborate on technology that will speed drug discovery.” [See “Statement of Purpose,” below.]

As worthy as that goal is, Rule acknowledges it is insufficient to make people understand the end product. Ultimately, Rule says the Alliance’s mission is to “fulfill the promise of personalized medicine. It’s about helping the life science industry use technology to develop therapies that address global health issues.”

“We’ve coalesced around the mission of personalized health,” says Rule. “There have been a couple of decades of intense investment around the world to bring forward molecular biology and understand the implications around human health. But it’s not [complete] until there’s an end-to-end description — if you have a certain genotype, this is the effect on your health, this is what you should know about drugs, diet, and everything else. That affects your life.”

“For the Alliance, it’s an audacious goal. We didn’t think anything else was interesting enough to form an alliance around.”

Target Areas
Rule ticks off four key targets as “the big problems in the discovery process”: data integration; collaboration amongst teams separated by geography, disciplines, or across organizations; knowledge (not just data) mining; and workflow. Rule says the latter is not cited so often, but knowledge workers need to design the protocol they’re working on very flexibly, so they can change the way they take research.

The Collaborative Molecular Environment is the Alliance’s first project, launched two months ago, with Peter Kuhn, associate professor at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., who works on SARS and cancer clinical diagnostics. The goal is to find ways to capture data in a way that’s useful in the long term using familiar tools such as Microsoft Office, Windows Presentation Foundation, and SharePoint Products and Technologies. Early examples include 2-D gel annotation, to allow researchers to search and share annotations, and 3-D protein structural biology. “We need to select a portion of a molecule and put in annotations — text, documents, spreadsheets, etc. — anything that describes a fact about the molecule,” explains Rule.

The Digital Dozen
There are currently more than a dozen members of the BioIT Alliance from the life sciences and IT, including Applied Biosystems. Rule recently met with executives from four major pharmas to discuss data annotation. One idea involves the Protein Databank, which could be improved with a facility to permit annotations that can be shared with other people.

Rule hopes his efforts will turn into “something very effective in coalescing the life science industry around solutions that will accelerate progress. There’s tremendous excitement within Microsoft — a lot of people understand the importance of [the BioIT Alliance].”

They include Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates, who commented, “By bringing together people from innovative life sciences organizations that span the biomedical industry, the BioIT Alliance will play an important role in the development of solutions that transform today’s data into knowledge and improve the quality of millions of lives.”

Next up is a project with Applied Biosystems designed, Rule says, “to make their data more readily available to outside people. We’re explicitly looking for an opportunity to integrate their data with another vendor’s data and in turn integrate what is learned about genotypes with clinical data. That was the genesis around the mission statement of personalized health. If they don’t move from research into the clinical diagnostic world, the benefit of that research will never be realized."

Tony Kerlavage, senior director, Applied Biosystems, says, "The BioIT Alliance will further expand our ongoing commitment to developing innovative new products and services that facilitate a more integrated, interdisciplinary approach to biomedical research."

Although designed to showcase Microsoft technology, Rule admits the Alliance “won’t be very relevant if it isn’t open. We must make sure we’re sharing. We want our products used in the best way possible.”

Rule announced the BioIT Alliance earlier this month at the Bio-IT World Life Sciences Conference + Expo in Boston.

Sidebar: Statement of Purpose refers to the Alliance as “a cross-industry group working together to improve biomedical informatics solutions with the Microsoft platform. [It] will enable the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, equipment manufacturing, and software industries to share best practices and develop standards for sharing biomedical data, improving collaboration, and effectively managing life sciences knowledge.”

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