Microsoft's Spam Battle Helps in HIV Vaccine Search

Microsoft researchers have discovered that the tools they developed to detect spammers' efforts to avoid anti-spam filters are also capable of spotting mutations in the HIV virus.

Researchers David Heckerman and Jonathan Carlson were called upon to help AIDS researchers analyse data about how the human immune system attacks the HIV virus using the technology and algorithms the company had developed to fight spam e-mail in the their Hotmail, Outlook and Exchange e-mail clients.

As with many Microsoft Research projects, the work is being undertaken in partnership with several other experts in the field. Testing of a vaccine in Durban, South Africa is being led by Bruce Walker, at the Ragon Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT and Harvard, and a professor of medicine at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

The researchers used a 'computational biology' tool called PhyloD, which contains an algorithm, code and visualization tools to perform complex pattern recognition and analysis - enabling Heckerman and the team to learn how different individual immune systems respond to the many mutations of the virus. The foundation of this tool includes algorithms developed to spot efforts by spammers to avoid detection by anti-spam filters.

"It turns out there are a lot of similarities between the way spammers evolve their approaches to avoid filters and the way the HIV virus is constantly mutating," notes Steve Clayton in a post on Microsoft Research's blog.

The research carried out by the team could be revolutionary in the treatment of not only the HIV virus. Bruce Walker explains: "Everything we learn here is going to be applicable not just to HIV but to breast cancer and prostate cancer - and will ultimately change the way medicine is practiced."

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