I recently had the opportunity to talk with Michael Naimoli, Industry Solutions Director for Microsoft’s U.S. Health & Life Sciences Group and a former biopharmaceutical scientist. Our discussion focused on Life Sciences at Microsoft and how this sector comes in to play as far as developing the software to allow companies to attain and utilize the information needed to perform everyday research, development and clinical trials.
In today’s world, we are inundated with a wealth of information and healthcare is crushed under the amount of data that is generated. The Life Sciences sector works collaboratively with other areas in the industry to give guidance, specifically in the area of content management. This is important as healthcare, more than any other industry, is really feeling the pressure as we move into the future.
What are some of the areas where your group at Microsoft has partnered with clients for a solution?
Life Sciences at Microsoft is a technology platform company with solutions that span the entire ecosystem, from drug discovery to clinical trials. Life Sciences is a very creative group at Microsoft, and through the use of our unique software tools and partner products, we’re able to create solutions for our clients. It’s rather difficult to pinpoint a “one-size-fits-all” approach for the work that we do, as everything is basically a customized solution because the desired results vary for each client.
If each client’s needs are so varied, is there any kind of initial roadmap to be followed, and if so, how do you prepare?
We do a lot of listening and collaborating, as Life Sciences is a fast-paced industry. Our group functions somewhat on the edge at all times; in other words, we must have the ability to quickly adjust and make changes based on our client’s needs. With all the research done today in the field of genomics and biology, customer demands often change quickly so our group must be prepared to provide solutions in a timely manner. Being part of the Life Sciences group requires the staff to be well-versed in this atmosphere and also have the ability to switch gears quickly and modify and projects, sometimes at a moment’s notice.
How does Life Sciences work with other divisions in healthcare at Microsoft?
We are frequently asked to help and provide assistance with other healthcare divisions. We have worked with other departments to develop and put together a solution that will interface and provide information to Amalga, Microsoft's hospital information system, as one example. In addition, some facilities may need our expertise in the clinical trials. Amalga is a part of the clinical solution, but as it expands, the Life Sciences industry has the opportunity to build on the platform and design specific business intelligence software solutions. This makes it easier for all involved to quickly research and find their way through the vast amount of data collected for some very specific clinical trials. We’ve also recently introduced a new software system called Amalga Life Sciences, which will help to transform healthcare and life science research data into knowledge needed to achieve personalized medicine.
With clinical trials being a strong area of focus, how do you help a clinic, hospital or health organization with the storage of information?
Every situation is different, and projects have data stored for different amounts of time. For example, one project may have 25 years worth of accumulated clinical trial information, whereas another may have data from the past few months. The client is looking for a better way to utilize some of the data that is already contained in house. It is not unusual in this type of scenario to find that only 3 percent of all the data collected is being analyzed. This means the results and reports are still attained, but there’s a lot of valuable information just sitting on the table that can also offer additional sources of business intelligence and perhaps even add to the value of the time spent conducting the trials. We are able to come in and meet with clients to listen to their needs and then go to work with the process of designing additional methodologies for data mining of the other 97 percent of data that has not yet been analyzed or touched.
I hear a lot of talk about using the “cloud” for data storage. Is this an area that Life Sciences is looking to expand or provide resources for the customer?
There are many options available when we talk about the “cloud,” so this area and its meaning can be a little confusing at times. Microsoft’s offerings in this area are pretty broad, in that we have announced a pure cloud-based operating system called Windows Azure – essentially “Windows for the cloud,” which runs virtually via our large datacenters around the world. But we also will soon offer all of our traditional products running on Azure, such as SharePoint and others products, as well as encourage partners to develop applications on top of it too.
It all depends on the solution desired by a client as one situation may involve document management while the next may be a customer who wants to integrate either FDA or other genomic information into a useful information format. Some solutions may work better offsite in a data storage area, and Microsoft has a few of these. Or it might be in the best interest of the client to maintain the information on premise. Additional information about Microsoft and cloud computing is accessible here.
Are all of the solutions created Microsoft solutions, or is it possible to work with open source solutions if current data were kept in a format outside of a Microsoft product?
Yes, we have a term for that, called the “sandbox.” If the solution means bridging the gap and creating the highway for different applications and software to communicate and query, we certainly are up to the task. Just this year, Microsoft announced a new agreement with Novell to encourage this interoperability, and we’ll continue to support open standards in the industry as well.
We use software solutions from Microsoft that are designed to meet the needs of the client. One of the more common products utilized is SQL server for the data storage.
Server 2008 is also a potential solution with the capacity to function with high loads of data with Hyper V and virtualization capabilities which many research institutions and healthcare providers are implementing into their facilities. SharePoint Server and SharePoint Services also work well for collaboration and research to create a custom solution.
Some of our greatest opportunities for solutions are with Microsoft Office. Office has been a main stay for many years in the business community so the products offer familiarity for most. We have a big advantage with Office in the fact that training time, for example, is not as extensive as it would be for a group to have to learn to work with an entirely new system. Data is stored in SQL server, and SharePoint offers collaboration.
With Microsoft Office, all information can be utilized to create documents in Word or other elements of Office such as Excel for the purposes of meetings, reporting, etc. or whatever the need may be. Excel is also a key element of Microsoft Office in for Business Intelligence models. Microsoft Office Communicator 2007 offers value with real-time communication available to all participants in a project.
Other Microsoft products used in solutions may include Microsoft Windows HPC Server 2008, which is equipped to handle high volumes of information as we move into the world of supercomputing, and this is important with the amount of information created by genomics and personalized medicine research today. Microsoft Office Project Professional can be used for tracking and having an entire project under one roof to enable collaboration and the ability to see a process and its progress from start to finish.
(Case study: Scripps Research Institute using Windows® HPC Server 2008)
One item I have heard mentioned recently is the issue of complex software on the market today for investigators and pharmaceutical companies to conduct clinical trials. Is this an area where Life Sciences has solutions?
Software is getting more complex as platforms and architecture continue to evolve. By using Microsoft Office as a platform with familiar interfaces and tools, a solution can be designed to help make life easier for the end users. If you don’t have a simple and efficient application that appeals to the end users, then the solution is not going to be effective. The ability to make our tools “user-friendly” is a top priority for us.
(Other examples and a full listing of case studies can be found here).
InfoPath, another part of Microsoft Office, also offers some real-time solutions and integrates with all other Microsoft Office products and beyond. InfoPath forms makes data entry simplified for the end user and works well with Tablet PCs for individuals that are not sitting at a desk and their job requires a certain amount of mobility. InfoPath forms work well with Microsoft Outlook 2007 and are integrated.
Are the solutions expensive for the end user? In other words, some type of return on investment is important, so will a client need to spend a lot of money to reach their desired goals?
In addition to our commercial products, Microsoft has an open source web site called CodePlex. One example of a project that is free and available for anyone to download is the Microsoft Computational Biology Web Tools, which includes the source code for developers. The project is also listed at CodePlex.
CodePlex is part of the “sandbox” I mentioned earlier as one of the projects that include not only software developed by Microsoft, but also the tools and development kits contributed by the communities and members. This way you can see a mash up between a Microsoft solution and one from another source on the listings and it is growing all the time. One example of this effort was a collaboration of work for the SAFE Signing Interface for Office 2007 and Vista, again using Microsoft Office as the platform and developed by the Microsoft Life Sciences team.
Life Sciences is prepared to work with both Microsoft products and other technologies that are currently in use at the client location or work, and also collaborate with other companies and individuals who are part of the final solution for the client.
I have listed the links from the website below that offer additional information on where Microsoft Life Sciences focuses and has the expertise to create the desired solutions.
Thank you for your time, Michael. The discussion really provided a thorough understanding of Microsoft Life Sciences and the solutions available to your customers. In addition, having the department staffed with actual scientists is also a big plus when it comes to understanding the challenges in research and development with biotech, pharmaceutical companies or any company involved in the development of clinical trials face today.
This information clearly has an impact on where we are both today and tomorrow, as information management is really a large component in the future of healthcare.