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Microsoft Claims They Will Solve Cancer by Hacking It

by
author image Hillary Eaton
Hillary Eaton is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles whose work has appeared in VICE, Refinery29, LA Weekly and Complex. She loves writing about food, entertainment, travel and style.
Engineers, programmers and scientists come together to fight cancer at Microsoft.
Engineers, programmers and scientists come together to fight cancer at Microsoft. Photo Credit Adobe Stock

The cure for cancer may come from a laptop instead of a laboratory.

A recent announcement from Microsoft via an article published to their blog included some shocking news. The tech company believes it will be able to solve cancer in the not-too-distant future.

As you might have guessed, the cure won’t come from traditional medical research methods. Microsoft plans to use state-of-the-art computer technology to hack cells and artificial intelligence to create personalized cancer care.

Teams of the world’s leading engineers and biologists will divide and conquer, each focusing on tackling a different aspect of cancer. One area of research will be focused on developing more effective ways to sort through the research data that’s available with machine learning to develop individualized cancer treatments.

Another will look at finding a more detailed understanding of tumor growth via computer vision. But perhaps the coolest, most high-tech approach they’re going for seems almost too sci-fi to be true: a moon-shot effort geared toward actually reprograming cells to fight cancer.

And if that wasn’t enough, Microsoft believes that with all this they will be able to beat cancer within the next decade.

What’s the Plan?

Overall, the strategy is two-pronged. The first will be a data-driven approach based on machine learning — a tool used to sort through the mass of research and data to better understand cancer and treat it in a way that just can’t be done with the human brain alone.

Cancer and other biological processes are information-processing systems, just like a computer. The second approach uses programming languages, model checkers, compilers and other programs and algorithms to treat biology in the same way we treat programing. Essentially, they’re looking to debug the flawed cancer cells from within the body.

“We built the computer. We know how it works,” says Andrew Phillips, head of the Bio Computation Group. “We didn’t build the cell, and many of its complex internal workings remain a mystery to us. So we need to understand how the cell computes in order to program it.”

So What’s the Future Look Like?

“We need to develop the methods and software for analyzing and programming cells,” says Phillips. He imagines a possible outcome of their research to be a kind of molecular computer. A system that lives inside the cell and monitors your body with the ability to fight when it detects the presence of any disease.

So maybe it’s not exactly beating it as much as it is solving it — like a computer problem. “I’m not saying that cancer will cease to exist,” Jasmin Fisher, a senior researcher at Microsoft’s Cambridge research lab, says.

“But once you manage it — once you know how to control it — it’s a solved problem. We can use methods that we’ve developed for programming computers to program biology and then unlock even more applications and even better treatments.”

But what’s most exciting is that it’s not a matter of if but when: “Like the moon shot, we know that this is technically possible,” Phillips says. “Now it’s a matter of making it a reality.”

What Do YOU Think?

What do you think about the tech industry claiming they will solve cancer before the medical industry? How do you feel about the idea of a molecular computer? Have you or a loved one suffered from cancer? Has patient care been one of the issues you wish could have benefited from this new research? Can you believe cancer could be solved within a decade? Share your thoughts, suggestions and questions in the comments below!

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