Microsoft Research: Hunting for HIV vaccine with techniques that fight spam

Spammers constantly mutate emails to avoid detection. Microsoft Research applied how-to-fight spam principles to help spot fragmented mutations in the HIV virus, helping in the search for a HIV vaccine.

Everyone hates spam, except for the spammers, but what do spammers who are continuously trying to avoid spam filters have in common with the HIV virus? Microsoft Research has spotted similar patterns in the way they mutate and avoid detection.

In the fight against Hotmail email spam, Microsoft researchers have previously explored graphing social networks to identify spammer email accounts from legitimate users' accounts. Yet spam is constantly mutating as spammers make little tweaks to their spamming tools in order to avoid data mining software and complex algorithms meant to distinguish spam from legitimate email. New Microsoft research has taken the how-to-fight spam principles and applied it to spotting tiny fragmented mutations in the HIV virus that would normally avoid detection.

5,000 people die every day from HIV-related causes; that's more than 1.8 million deaths per year. Bruce Walker, director of the Ragon Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT and Harvard, and a professor of medicine at the University of KwaZulu-Natal has been "laying the groundwork for testing future HIV vaccine candidates in Durban, South Africa." Microsoft Research collaboration stories about the HIV epidemic reported, "Barring the discovery of a cure, the best way to slow-and potentially reverse-the progress of the epidemic is to vastly reduce the volume of new cases through vaccination." Microsoft Research Connections is working to pinpoint "how the immune system attacks various fragments of HIV-data that we hope will, one day, lead to a vaccine." Microsoft has applied the same algorithm that can identify and fight spam to analyze and detect those mutated HIV data fragments.

David Heckerman, a Distinguished Scientist and manager of the eScience group at Microsoft Research, said, "When we first met Bruce, he had a very tricky problem to analyze. He had this great data set but he didn't know how to analyze it. We happened to have just the right algorithm for it and this large bank of computers at Microsoft that could do this massive amount of computation. He gave us the problem on Friday. On Monday, we had a completed analysis for him."

TechNet reported that Heckerman, along with Microsoft researcher Jonathan Carlson, have previously developed data mining software and complex algorithms that look for patterns in the way spammers try to avoid spam filters. A Microsoft Computational Biology Tool called PhyloD "contains an algorithm, code and visualization tools to perform complex pattern recognition and analysis - enabling Heckerman and his colleagues to learn how different individual immune systems respond to the many mutations of the virus."

As Steve Clayton said, "It turns out there are a lot of similarities between the way spammers evolve their approaches to avoid filters and the way that the HIV virus is constantly mutating." Equally impressed about applying principles to develop smarter anti-spam filters to help fight HIV, The Verge asked, "Who knew spam could be sent for the greater good?"

Applying anti-spam science to HIV vaccine project research "has the potential to help millions through the prevention of HIV and, perhaps one day, a cure." Walker noted, "Everything we learn studying HIV tells us how the immune system works and how it fails. I want people to understand that the immune system, on a daily basis, is not just protecting us against infections; it's also protecting us against cancers. 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."

The next time you are irritated with spam in your inbox, mark it as spam and try to remember there may be a silver life-saving lining some day that comes from that spammy cloud.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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