Artificial Intelligence: Chemistry-combing AI Algo Discovers New Antibiotic

February 24, 2020 | Artificial Intelligence
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Halicin, the miracle antibiotic discovered by AI, can kill the most antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The healthcare industry is facing a crisis from antibiotic resistance. More and more bacteria or viruses are developing resistance to existing antibiotics. Further, the current pipeline for the development of new antibiotics in the biotech and pharma sectors is “anemic,” according to James Collins, the Termeer Professor of Medical Engineering and Science in MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) and Department of Biological Engineering.

Screening for new antibiotics is very expensive, takes very long, and is narrow in scope. Moreover, very few new antibiotics have been developed in the past decades. (MIT News)

AI deployed to tackle the vacuum in antibiotic development

Researchers at MIT explored the concept of using a machine-learning algorithm to scan a database of chemical compounds. It would select potential antibiotic candidates that can destroy the target bacteria. However, the objective would be to use a different mechanism than that used in current drugs.

“The machine learning model can explore, in silico, large chemical spaces that can be prohibitively expensive for traditional experimental approaches,” says Regina Barzilay. She is the Delta Electronics Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).

Test on E. Coli

The researchers first targeted the E. coli bacterium. They trained the AI algo on 2,500 molecules, including about 1,700 FDA-approved drugs and a set of 800 natural products that were effective against E. Coli.

They then tested it on a repository of about 6,000 compounds at the Broad Institute’s Drug Repurposing Hub.

The algo zeroed in on a molecule shown to have strong antibacterial activity. Separately, this molecule also had low toxicity versus human cells.

The researchers named this molecule halicin. It proved effective in lab tests on multiple bacterial strains, including those that have turned antibiotic-resistant such as Clostridium difficile, Acinetobacter baumannii, and Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

“Our approach revealed this amazing molecule which is arguably one of the more powerful antibiotics that has been discovered,” said Professor Collins.

The MIT team also tested halicin on live mice infected with a very virulent, highly resistant bacteria known to infect American soldiers in Afghanistan. An ointment containing halicin completely cleared the infection within 24 hours.

Interestingly, the E. Coli bacterium did not develop any resistance to halicin even after a treatment period of 30 days.

Related Story:   Artificial Intelligence: AI To Trawl Medical Data Troves To Identify ‘Cause And Effect’, Sharpen Diagnosis                                               

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