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Microsoft, Biotech Partner on Gene, Cell Therapies

Computational biology illustration

(Lawrence Livermore National Lab)

14 Mar. 2019. A biotechnology company in the U.K. and U.S. software maker Microsoft are collaborating on new processes to speed development of gene and cell therapies. Financial aspects of the 2-year deal between Oxford Biomedica in Oxford, England and Microsoft’s research division were not disclosed.

Gene and cell therapies offer hope for some of the more difficult diseases to treat. With gene therapies, mutated or damaged genes responsible for the disorder are replaced with healthy genes, while cell therapies replace damaged cells with healthy cells grown from stem cells or genetically-engineered immune-system cells to produce antibodies to fight the disease. In both cases, healthy genes or cells are transferred into patients. And for both of these applications, Oxford Biomedica developed a technology using safe viruses to make these transfers.

The company’s technology is based on lentiviruses, benign viruses that efficiently transfer genes into the DNA of host cells. Among the well-known (and notorious) lentiviruses is HIV, but other lentiviral strains do not cause disease in their natural or modified states. Oxford Biomedica engineers lentiviruses for gene and cell therapies to deliver healthy genes into dividing cells, such as T-cells, or non-dividing cells, such a neurons, or nerve cells. The company develops its own treatments for cancer, vision disorders, neurological diseases, and licenses its technology to other biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies also for cancer, vision, neurological diseases, but also for inherited conditions, such as hemophilia and cystic fibrosis.

In the deal with Microsoft, Oxford Biomedica is making its accumulated data sets available to the software company’s research division for further analysis to uncover more efficient ways to produce engineered lentiviruses, as well as improve their quality. Microsoft Research offers a technology platform called Station B that aims to make synthetic biology as programmable as writing code for computers. Station B, based in Cambridge, England, partners with the molecular biology lab of Bonnie Bassler at Princeton University in New Jersey to help solve the complex problem of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, and with Synthace Ltd., a developer of software for automated lab equipment in London to routinely capture data from experiments and reduce problems of scientific reproducibility.

In their new agreement, Oxford Biomedica is providing its data sets for analysis to Station B through Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform, where Microsoft and Oxford Biomedica researchers plan to apply machine-learning algorithms to construct computer models of biological processes and new algorithms, leading to more efficient and reliable lentiviral delivery systems. Oxford Biomedica has an existing partnership with Synthace, begun in 2017, which the company plans to bring into Microsoft’s Station B analysis.

“The collaboration with Microsoft Research,” says Jason Slingsby, Oxford Biomedica’s chief business officer in a company statement, “will harness our rich data resources to offer greater insights into the biological processes required to enhance quality and optimize yields of lentiviral vectors. It builds on our digital framework initiative, established in 2018, and the work underway in our collaboration with Synthace to rapidly and flexibly design, simulate, and execute complex experimental designs to develop next generation manufacturing processes, including with stable producer cell lines for lentiviral vectors.”

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