UPDATED 12:51 EST / FEBRUARY 28 2018


In healthcare push, Microsoft launches genomics service on Azure cloud

Microsoft Corp. hopes to establish a stronger presence in the healthcare sector with a new genomic analysis platform that will provide scientists with an environment for carrying out large-scale medical research.

The service, which is launching under the name Microsoft Genomics, is one of several healthcare offerings that the company introduced today for its Azure cloud platform.

It provides a hosted implementation of two open-source tools used in DNA sequencing projects. The first is called the Burrows-Wheeler Aligner, while the other goes by GATK and is based on MapReduce, the same technology that gave rise to the popular Hadoop big-data analytics platform.

Microsoft Genomics offers the tools under a “per-genome billing model” based on the volume of data that researchers analyze. The launch of the service comes amid growing efforts in the healthcare sector to harness genomic data for improving medical care. DNA information often contains valuable insight, such as clues about a person’s susceptibility to certain diseases, that can help doctors identify the treatment method with the highest chance of success.

The two other new offerings that Microsoft unveiled today likewise aim to boost healthcare providers’ work. Intelligent Scribe, one of the products, uses the existing machine learning services in Azure to automatically distill information from a doctor’s conversation with a patient into carefully organized notes. The idea is to free up time practitioners’ time for more impactful tasks.

Intelligence Scribe is joined by a new Azure “blueprint” that Microsoft said provides a quick way to set up a cloud environment compliant with the HIPAA regulation governing the use of healthcare data. According to the company, the bundle includes scripts for deploying services in accordance with the law and other ready-made components.

Microsoft is determined to make its mark on healthcare. On top of providing specialized cloud services for tasks such as genome sequencing, the company is also involved in several research initiatives that seek to tackle some of the world’s most pressing medical challenges.

One is the Microsoft Intelligent Network for Eyecare. The company is collaborating with research institutions across four continents to develop models that can determine the best way to treat each given patient’s vision impairment. In conjunction with today’s product announcements, Microsoft renamed the initiative to the AI Network for Healthcare and announced plans to expand its focus to cardiology.

Alphabet Inc. is another major tech firm that’s pursuing high-impact medical research. DeepMind, the company’s artificial intelligence research division, last week teamed up with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to harness AI for predicting kidney injuries.

Image: St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

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