Send to printer »

Corporate Profiles : Jul 1, 2009 (Vol. 29, No. 13)

Microsoft Strengthens Its Involvement in Life Sciences

Firm’s Health Solutions Group Extends Reach through Rosetta Biosoftware Purchase
  • Carol Potera

Microsoft created its health solutions group about four years ago to explore software applications for the life science market. The software giant strengthened its life science position last month by buying Rosetta Biosoftware from Merck & Co. Researchers use Rosetta’s computational software to learn how genes interact with each other, analyze peptides and metabolites, and determine what controls gene expression. Microsoft will offer Rosetta’s software through its Amalga Life Sciences platform starting in January 2010.

Merck planned to use the Rosetta software to gain an edge over competitors in the development of new drugs by identifying genetic markers to better select patients who likely would respond to certain drugs, rather than suffer side effects. Merck will now become a Microsoft customer.

Microsoft considered building its own computational biology software platform, however, “to build product streams like Rosetta already had created would take three to five years and twenty people per product stream. That’s prohibitively impractical, and buying made a lot more sense,” says Jim Karkanias, senior director of applied research and technology in the health solutions group.

The purchase of Rosetta Biosoftware comes with 10 years of experience, skilled personnel, an existing customer base, and partnerships with academic centers, drug companies, and genetic instrument companies.

Microsoft will incorporate Rosetta’s technology into its Amalga Life Sciences 2009 platform to create new bioinformatic solutions to expedite drug discovery and development. The overall goal of the Amalga product line is to amalgamate data from disparate databases into a unified system. “We hope to reduce the cycle time to bring new drugs to market from 20 years down to two years,” Karkanias says.

The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center was an early test site and adopter of the Amalga Life Sciences platform. “Our researchers face an overwhelming challenge to collect, analyze, interpret, and share complex data from a wide range of diseases and experiments,” says Lee Hartwell, Ph.D., president and director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. The institution will use Amalga Life Sciences 2009 to efficiently interpret rich data.

Microsoft formally launched Amalga Life Sciences 2009 in April at the Bio-IT “World Conference & Expo”. The system allows life scientists to automate the management and analysis of massive, heterogeneous research data. Organizations can redesign processes to increase productivity, improve decision making, and reduce errors, the firm reports. The software tools acquired from Rosetta will further extend the capabilities of the Amalga Life Sciences 2009 technology.

One challenge may be convincing biological scientists to purchase the Rosetta-Amalga hybrid product. Some life science researchers still capture data with Excel or homemade software programs. Karkanias predicts that the decision to switch will be value driven.

Research institutions spend hundreds of millions of dollars analyzing data with old-fashion methods. Excel, for instance, can only analyze data in two dimensions at a time (rows and columns), whereas today’s data must be evaluated in hundreds of dimensions. Amalga Life Sciences 2009 performs tasks that would required 10,000 Excel spreadsheets, Karkanias claims. The transition to the Rosetta-Amalga product will be similar to deciding between a paper map or global positioning system (GPS) for navigating a new frontier. “The GPS may be more expensive, but it gives better results,” says Karkanias.

Amalga Unified Intelligence System

Karkanias and Peter Neupert, corporate vp of the health solutions group, started Microsoft’s life science endeavors with the 2006 acquisition of Azyxxi, a software platform designed by physicians at Medstar’s Washington Hospital Center. The system, based on a Microsoft framework, allowed physicians to bring together all types of patient data from hundreds of sources and make it instantly available at the point of care. Caregivers gained immediate access to patient data, including EKGs, scanned documents, x-rays, CT and MRI scans, angiograms, and ultrasound images, Karkanias reports.

The Azyxxi software formed the backbone of Microsoft’s Amalga Unified Intelligence System (UIS). Microsoft plans to integrate Rosetta software, as part of Amalga Life Sciences 2009, into Amalga UIS to provide “synergistic advantages to make translational medicine feasible,” explains Karkanias. Amalga UIS already has situational awareness built into it to assist physicians with point-of-care decisions, he adds. In the future, the platform will allow physicians to understand the genetics of a cancer patient in order to select the best treatments. 

Several hospitals have already acquired Amalga UIS. At Seattle’s Children’s Hospital, Amalga UIS serves as a capstone over all the hospital’s different databases to improve its continuous performance improvement (CPI) processes. CPI is the ability to understand what happens in different clinical and nonclinical departments to find ways to improve performance and serve patients. Amalga UIS also reportedly speeds translational medicine by aggregating data locked inside separate information systems. “Some of the most exciting ways to use Amalga have yet to be discovered,” says Tom Hansen, M.D., CEO at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

St. Joseph’s Health System in California uses Amalga UIS to access information across its system, improve critical care decisions, and identify disease trends in the community. Amalga UIS unlocks valuable data locked inside clinical, financial, and administrative silos to improve patient care and operational efficiency, says CMO Clyde West, M.D. “Amalga is an indispensable tool that will take us to the next level to deliver the best possible care to the community we serve.”

Most physicians rely on patients to tell them their past health history, an inefficient way to operate. The Wisconsin Health Information Exchange (WHIE) adopted Amalga UIS to integrate regional hospital systems that store data in different formats to improve quality, accessibility, safety, and efficiency. Aggregated information is also ent to public health authorities to track acute or epidemic disease patterns. WHIE’s goal is to link information not only regionally, but also nationally and internationally. “We’ve only just scratched the surface of the opportunities for Amalga,” says Kim Pemble, executive director of WHIE.

The latest version of Amalga UIS allows patients to monitor their own health through a personal Health Vault account that stores all health records in one place and shares them with doctors. Patients can access their own medical records on home computers or cell phones, and they are linked to pharmacies, insurance providers, and manufacturers of medical devices. For instance, daily blood pressure or blood glucose readings taken by an elderly parent at home can be sent to children who live in another state for remote monitoring.

Health Vault also is available as a stand-alone service independent of Amalga UIS. The Hawaii Medical Associate Services offers Health Vault to its patients, and physicians there see a bright future for Health Vault in treating the six million tourists who visit Hawaii yearly. Online records could be quickly obtained to insure the best outcomes for travelers who become ill on vacation.

The health solutions group was formed four years ago with a staff of four. Today the department employs 440 people. “We work on an accelerating curve, and as new parts become available to assemble, people will find novel ways to explore new areas,” Karkanias says.