The Vancouver-based B.C. Cancer Research Foundation is partnering with Microsoft Corp. on innovative research that is changing the way we treat and understand cancer.

That B.C. Cancer is using Microsoft Azure to upload, store and analyze data might not sound game-changing on the surface, but as post-doctoral fellow Andrew McPherson put it to, the Foundation is using the cloud platform to complete research that would have previously taken years in mere days.

“We are interested in studying the evolution of tumour genomes, but at the level that is not currently available to traditional genome sequencing,” McPherson said.

Fortunately, the Foundation’s research is anything but traditional.

Azure and cancer research

Recent statistics indicate that cancer is the leading cause of death in Canada, with almost half of all Canadians expected to develop cancer in their lifetime.

And while 60 percent of those diagnosed will survive at least five years after their diagnosis, McPherson is confident that B.C. Cancer’s research has the potential to considerably increase those chances.

“We are able to leverage the fact that [Microsoft] has nearly limitless scaling of compute power in their data centres, relative to our own computing power,” he said.

In its studies, the foundation uses a method known as single-cell genomics to dissect cancer down to its most elemental level, allowing scientists view to view cancer cells at their highest resolution – ‘single cell’.

At this level of detail, they can learn how tumours acquire resistance to treatment and create targeted treatments based on the unique characteristics of each cancer tumour.

The result: researchers are better able to predict how individual cells within a patient’s tumour will respond to chemotherapy, allowing doctors to create more precise and effective treatment plans for each patient – and Azure has played a key part in increasing the speed at which that data is analyzed.

For starters, the researchers are able to use artificial intelligence (AI)-powered genome sequencing programs to help analyze individual cells at a faster rate that would otherwise not have been available to them.

The team is also utilizing the cloud’s unlimited storage and knowledge sharing capabilities to build an internationally shared genomics database, helping B.C. Cancer contribute to and take advantage of research (some of which is also Microsoft-powered) from around the world.

Microsoft and healthcare

Microsoft Canada president Kevin Peesker told that the company’s partnership with B.C. Cancer is emblematic of its commitment to bringing technology and healthcare together around the world.

“The B.C. Cancer project is just the latest in the work we’re doing to help transform the healthcare industry across Canada,” he said, citing like Montreal-based CAE, which uses Microsoft technology to create holograms of organs, and Medicine Hat’s Kinetisense, which uses the cloud to create databases and open lines of communication between healthcare providers.

“For decades, fundamental questions about the nature of cancer have troubled patients, doctors and scientists,” Peesker said. “Why do people die of cancer? How do cancer cells learn to resist treatment?”

He believes the company’s partnership with B.C. Cancer offers a next-generation approach to answering these questions.

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