Microsoft Aims to Help Scientists Move Past Excel, Make Sense of Gene Data Overload

Biologists are living in an era of information overload, and Microsoft says it’s making an effort to help them cut through the noise. The Redmond, WA-based software firm is introducing a new program today called Amalga Life Sciences, designed to help lab scientists make sense of the vast reams of genomic data piling up from experiments, which often come from different software applications and are written in incompatible formats.

Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) is rolling out the program today at the Bio-IT World Conference in Boston. It enlisted Jennifer Chayes, one of the leaders of Microsoft Research in New England, and Jim Karkanias, a senior director of Microsoft Health Solutions, to explain what this is all about to journalists. I got the rundown from Karkanias.

This program is another step in Microsoft’s quest to grab hold of the emerging demand for better information technology in the life sciences industry, a notoriously slow adopter of cutting-edge IT. The company has already been marketing a program for consumers to store their records, called HealthVault, as well as a program called Amalga to hospitals, which it acquired in July 2006. Amalga (pronounced Uh-MAL-guh) is supposed to help hospitals by synchronizing all of the 80 different proprietary IT programs the average U.S. hospital has, to get them to actually talk to each other. Now, instead of just focusing on the delivery piece of the health IT world (hospitals), Microsoft is extending the Amalga concept to basic lab scientists, many of whom are struggling with the same problem of getting their programs to work together well.

Even in an era when sophisticated instruments are making it possible to sequence a human genome with 3 billion chemical units of DNA in each cell, many scientists still try to make do with home-brewed IT systems, and cling to old-school spreadsheets like Excel, which were never intended to do this kind of heavy lifting in computing.

“If you survey the landscape of research, it’s really a patchwork of poorly integrated solutions that people are using,” Karkanias says. “We love Excel, it’s a simple environment for achieving what researchers want to do.” But Microsoft hopes the new program will help integrate the scientists’ existing data with more sophisticated tools to collect it, store it, double-check its accuracy, analyze it, and share it, he says.

Microsoft isn’t saying what this will cost, or how big the potential market is for the company in the broader context of its multi-billion dollar business. It’s not free—it’s an “enterprise software” program for big companies and organizations—and he said it has “quite a few customers already,” although he wouldn’t name names among pharmaceutical or biotech companies. He did say this: “Price has not been a barrier to adoption.”

The first customer that’s willing to be named is just a few miles down the road from … Next Page »

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2 responses to “Microsoft Aims to Help Scientists Move Past Excel, Make Sense of Gene Data Overload”

  1. joshuadf says:

    The UW is also piloting Amalga (formerly Azyxxi). I know nothing beyond public information, but the little I’ve seen does not seem to be anywhere near as easy to use as Excel. On the other hand, the researchers I talk to definitely see the need to move beyond Excel.

  2. ss says:

    statistical environment R and scripting language perl do an infinitely better job than excel. anybody serious about informatics in biology uses these or similar tools, not excel. pre-packaged solutions are tricky in biology because of high variance in assay platforms between and even within vendors’ offerings.