Australian researchers from the Flinders University, led by Professor Nikolai Petrovsky, created an AI program called SAM (Search Algorithm for Ligands), which managed to design its very own vaccine.
SAM was programmed with only one task in mind: to search for all the compounds it possibly can in order to find a ligand: a substance that forms a complex with a biomolecule in order to serve a biological purpose. In layman’s terms: a human drug.
“We had to teach the AI program on a set of compounds that are known to activate the human immune system, and a set of compounds that don’t work.” Petrovsky told Business Insider Australia. “The job of the AI was then to work out for itself what distinguished a drug that worked from one that doesn’t.”
The team then went to work and created a different program which they dubbed a “synthetic chemist”, capable of creating trillions of chemical compounds that were then delivered to SAM. The AI subsequently analyzed them and decided which were good enough to be used in humans for the creation of immune drugs.
The best compounds were then isolated, synthesized in a laboratory and tested on actual human blood cells.
“This confirmed that SAM not only had the ability to identify good drugs but in fact had come up with better human immune drugs than currently exist,” Petrovsky explained. “So we then took these drugs created by SAM into development with animal testing to confirm their ability to boost influenza vaccine effectiveness.”
Creating new drugs and vaccines usually takes a couple of years, if not decades. In all that time, not only millions of dollars are being spent on research but lives are also lost. By employing the use of AI to isolate a few drugs that can then be tested for success or failure in a relatively short amount of time would save both money and lives.
This comes as good news especially for Australia, where, just before June of this year, 228 people had already died from influenza-related complications. A better flu vaccine developed with the help of SAM might curb that number considerably.
“We already know from animal testing that the vaccine is highly protective against flu, outperforming the existing vaccines. Now we just need to confirm this in humans,” said Petrovsky.
Associate Professor Dimitar Sajkov insisted that developing new vaccine is pivotal, as a number of influenza sufferers had received the flu vaccine earlier in the year, to no avail: “It is tremendous to see such a promising vaccine that we developed with the very first human trials being done at Flinders, progressing onto the world stage. So far in 2019 there have been over 96 thousand confirmed cases across Australia.”
The Flinders University is no stranger to groundbreaking research: back in 2009, the team was the one responsible with developing the swine flu vaccine.