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AI system discovers powerful new antibiotic to tackle superbugs

Date: 24.2.2020 

Bacteria are evolving resistance to antibiotics much faster than new drugs can be developed, potentially leading us to a dangerous future where infections are more likely to be deadly. Now, an artificial intelligence model has identified a powerful new antibiotic called halicin, which cleared infections of most superbugs in mouse tests.

Kredit: Collins Lab / MIT.Ever since antibiotics were invented in the early 20th century, we’ve been locked in an arms race with bacteria. Antibiotics work for a while, but eventually the bugs evolve resistance to those in wide use. Scientists develop new ones, so bacteria continue to evolve, and so on. The problem is, we’re starting to lose the battle as the bugs outpace us and fewer new drugs are in the pipeline.

Drug discovery is an arduous task, requiring huge amounts of data to be crunched – and that’s just the kind of job that AI excels at. For this study, researchers from MIT and Harvard started by training a machine learning model on around 2,500 molecules, including existing FDA-approved drugs and other natural products.

Once the system had a good grasp of what biological effects these molecules have, the team then set it loose on a library of about 6,000 drug compounds to search for those that would have strong antibacterial activity. And it found one.

The molecule in question has been named halicin, after the AI system HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. No doubt it’s a tip of the hat to the method used to discover the new drug, but we can’t help but feel that it sounds oddly ominous.





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