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Lab Uses Microsoft's Vista For Cancer Research

California's Scripps Research Institute is one of the first to put the yet-to-be-released operating system to work in a production system.

Microsoft's Vista is still months from completion but it's already winning upbeat reviews from one of its first guinea pigs, a California research lab that's using a custom Vista application in its quest to unravel cancer.

The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, is working hand-in-hand with Microsoft Gold partner InterKnowlogy, which used the complete Vista and Office 2007 stack as the foundation of a tool it developed for modeling and annotating 3D structures. The project is one of the first to put Microsoft's fledgling technology to use in production systems.

"It's the bleeding edge," said InterKnowlogy CEO Tim Huckaby, "but the next version of SharePoint is so good it's worth the pain."

Scripps' application, the Collaborative Molecular Environment (CME), is helping researchers from diverse specialties and geographic locations jointly study and comment on graphical data.

"It sounds really simple, but there is no good way of doing this today," said Peter Kuhn, a professor of cellular biology at Scripps who heads a lab focused on cancer research. "We'll go in with a pathologist, an oncologist, a cellular biologist and a physicist, and the traditional way of sharing data was to package up a bundle of JPEGs. The pathologist would open them up in Photoshop and start scribbling on paper."

Dismayed about the detail being lost in such crude workflows, Kuhn met with Huckaby to consider IT solutions. The project moved at blinding speed: three months after the initial meeting, Scripps rolled out the first version of the CME.

Huckaby credits the sophistication of Microsoft's new technology for that pace. The advanced functionality of SharePoint 2007 and of the Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) at Vista's heart meant that two InterKnowlogy developers could create in a matter of weeks an application that would previously have taken months or years to develop, he said.

The CME uses the full stack of technologies in Microsoft's Vista wave, including the Vista client operating system, SharePoint 2007, Microsoft Office 2007 and .Net 3.0. Users can model and study structures in a graphical system powered by WPF and record their observations in a familiar Microsoft interface. SharePoint enables secure storage and remote access for the shared data. Kuhn is ecstatic about the tool, which Scripps has already deployed to 10 researchers in four different West Coast labs.

"We can't wait to use this to share our results with other NIH research centers, because it's really, really, really cool," Kuhn said.

While the CME is working well for Scripps, running a production application on the Vista/Office 2007 stack as it currently stands requires an inordinate amount of detailed attention, Huckaby cautions: "Constant contact with Redmond and daily builds are paramount. This stuff isn't ready for normal humans yet." InterKnowlogy recently froze work on the CME while it waits for Microsoft to build SharePoint APIs and quash bugs.

"We've got a feature list as wide as the Grand Canyon we'd like to add, but we're waiting on a number of things in the platform," Huckaby said.

Microsoft has been an enthusiastic participant in Scripps' project, contributing technical expertise and financial backing that were critical to getting the cash-strapped, non-profit lab's application off the ground. One thing Microsoft hasn't contributed, though, is an official blessing for Scripps' production use of the beta versions of Vista and SharePoint. InterKnowlogy has a half-dozen other client projects on hold as it waits for Go-Live licensing for SharePoint 2007, but Scripps decided to blaze ahead.

"In this case, I share Peter's view that it's better to ask forgiveness than permission," Huckaby said with a laugh. "The Microsoft folks are turning a blind eye to it being in production. There's a certain amount of power to being an organization that's trying to cure cancer."

Kuhn is delighted both with the CME itself and with the new collaboration it sparked between Scripps and the IT industry. Kuhn's lab had never before worked with a solutions provider, and he's eager to continue partnering with InterKnowlogy and Microsoft. "[Scientists] do so much working together, and there's all this everyday productivity stuff we can open up," Kuhn said. "Getting people with Microsoft or InterKnowlogy-type expertise and connections working on those problems is completely outstanding."

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