Researchers in Canada and the United States have used deep learning to derive an antibiotic that can attack a resistant microbe, acinetobacter baumannii, which can infect wounds and cause pneumonia. According to the BBC, a paper in Nature Chemical Biology describes how the researchers used training data that measured known drugs’ action on the tough bacteria. The learning algorithm then projected the effect of 6,680 compounds with no data on their effectiveness against the germ.
In an hour and a half, the program reduced the list to 240 promising candidates. Testing in the lab found that nine of these were effective and that one, now called abaucin, was extremely potent. While doing lab tests on 240 compounds sounds like a lot of work, it is better than testing nearly 6,700.
Interestingly, the new antibiotic seems only to be effective against the target microbe, which is a plus. It isn’t available for people yet and may not be for some time — drug testing being what it is. However, this is still a great example of how machine learning can augment human brainpower, letting scientists and others focus on what’s really important.
WHO identified acinetobacter baumannii as one of the major superbugs threatening the world, so a weapon against it would be very welcome. You can hope that this technique will drastically cut the time involved in developing new drugs. It also makes you wonder if there are other fields where AI techniques could cull out alternatives quickly, allowing humans to focus on the more promising candidates.
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We humans like to think of ourselves as the pinnacle of evolution on the planet, but that’s just a conceit. It takes humans roughly twenty years to reproduce, whereas some bacteria can make copies of themselves every 20 minutes. Countless generations of bacteria have honed and perfected their genomes into extremely evolved biological machines.
Most bacteria are harmless, and some are quite useful, even tasty – witness the lactofermented pickles and sauerkraut I made this summer. But some bacteria are pathogenic nightmares that have swarmed over the planet and caused untold misery and billions of deaths. For most of human history it has been so – the bugs were winning. Then a bright period dawned in the early 20th century – the Era of Antibiotics. At last we were delivered from the threat of pestilence, never more to suffer from plague and disease like our unfortunate ancestors. Infections were miraculously cured with a simple injection or pill, childhood diseases were no longer reaping their tragic harvest, and soldiers on the battlefield were surviving wounds that would have festered and led to a slow, painful death.
Now it seems like this bright spot of relief from bacterial disease might be drawing to an end. Resistant strains of bacteria are in the news these days, and the rise of superbugs seems inevitable. But is it? Have we run out of tools to fight back? Not quite yet as it turns out. But there’s a lot of work to do to make sure we win this battle.
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