A team of researchers led by Flinders University professor of medicine Dr. Nikolai Petrovsky has used artificial intelligence to create a highly effective new flu vaccine from scratch, Business Insider Australia has reported.
The AI programme, known as SAM (Search Algorithm for Ligands) is designed to find the ideal chemical compounds that can cause an appropriate response from a human immune system among the trillions of possible combinations.
"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," Dr. Petrovsky explained. "The job of the AI was then to work out for itself what distinguished a drug that worked from one that doesn't."
The next step was to create 'synthetic chemist', a random chemical compound generator capable of combining "trillions of different chemical compounds," which are then sent to SAM for analysis to weed out the chaff and find compounds which could be used to develop drugs for humans.
After SAM completed its computations, scientists tested the AI tool's top candidates on 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," Dr. Petrovsky boasted.
The drugs were then tested on animals, again confirming their effectiveness.
SAM's flu vaccine is now undergoing clinical trials in the. Before that, Petrovsky and his team complained that they could have conducted the tests at Flinders Medical Centre in Adelaide, Australia up to two years earlier if it weren't for bureaucratic efforts to block them.
"We would love to be able to do our research here but unfortunately we can't do our clinical trials here," Petrovsky told Australia's ABC News last week.
According to the academic, the Southern Adelaide Local Health Network had told him flat out not to conduct the trials, even as one of the trials was already underway. "I've never heard of trials being stopped similarly anywhere else in Australia," he complained.
The team's research has now received funding from the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The scientists expressed confidence that their vaccine could one day come to complement or even replace the existing standard seasonal flu shots issued in Australia.
Speaking to CNET about the AI program, Petrovsky said SAM's greatest potential may be its ability to predict a virus's future mutations.
"I believe that only a properly trained AI will have the ability to explore these patterns and choices [in the mutations] so that it can then actually predict where the virus is likely to go next…So we can then use this to get it to design a vaccine that predicts against future flu viruses rather than past ones," he said.
According to the scientists, SAM has the potential to shorten the discovery of new drugs by years or even decades, and save companies hundreds of millions of dollars in man hours.