Scientists have used artificial intelligence (AI) to discover a new antibiotic that can kill a deadly species of superbug.
The AI helped narrow down thousands of potential chemicals to a handful that could be tested in the laboratory.
The result was a potent, experimental antibiotic called abaucin, which will need further tests before being used.
The researchers in Canada and the US say AI has the power to massively accelerate the discovery of new drugs.
It is the latest example of how the tools of artificial intelligence can be a revolutionary force in science and medicine.
To find a new antibiotic, the researchers first had to train the AI. They took thousands of drugs where the precise chemical structure was known, and manually tested them on Acinetobacter baumannii to see which could slow it down or kill it.
This information was fed into the AI so it could learn the chemical features of drugs that could attack the problematic bacterium.
The AI was then unleashed on a list of 6,680 compounds whose effectiveness was unknown. The results – published in Nature Chemical Biology – showed it took the AI an hour and a half to produce a shortlist.
The researchers tested 240 in the laboratory, and found nine potential antibiotics. One of them was the incredibly potent antibiotic abaucin.
Laboratory experiments showed it could treat infected wounds in mice and was able to kill A. baumannii samples from patients.
However, Dr Stokes told me: “This is when the work starts.”
The next step is to perfect the drug in the laboratory and then perform clinical trials. He expects the first AI antibiotics could take until 2030 until they are available to be prescribed.
Curiously, this experimental antibiotic had no effect on other species of bacteria, and works only on A. baumannii.
Many antibiotics kill bacteria indiscriminately. The researchers believe the precision of abaucin will make it harder for drug-resistance to emerge, and could lead to fewer side-effects.
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