For years, scientists have been struggling with the problem of “protein folding” – mapping the three-dimensional shapes of the proteins that are responsible for diseases from cancer to COVID-19.
Google’s Deepmind claims to have created an artificially intelligent program called “AlphaFold” that is able to solve those problems in a matter of days.
If it works, the solution has come “decades” before it was expected, according to experts, and could have transformative effects in the way diseases are treated.
DeepMind worked on the AI project with the 14th Community Wide Experiment on the Critical Assessment of Techniques for Protein Structure Prediction (CASP14), a group of scientists who have been looking into the matter since 1994.
Dr John Moult, chair of CASP14 said: “Proteins are extremely complicated molecules, and their precise three-dimensional structure is key to the many roles they perform, for example the insulin that regulates sugar levels in our blood and the antibodies that help us fight infections.”.
During the latest test, DeepMind said AlphaFold determined the shape of around two-thirds of the proteins with accuracy comparable to laboratory experiments. The results of those tests have been published online, so that they can be scrutinised by external scientists.
Soffos.ai CEO Nikolas Kairinos said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has propelled artificial intelligence (AI) into the limelight. A phenomenon born out of necessity, machines have been pivotal in ensuring sick patients get the medical care that they need, and that the virus can be controlled as much as possible.
“DeepMind’s latest breakthrough has highlighted the huge potential of AI systems in the medical space going forward. Not only is AI a temporary solution to stem the tide of infections, but it can deliver improvements across all areas of healthcare. The protein structure problem is a challenge researchers have been working on for many years, and which held the promise of opening up new opportunities for drug development. DeepMind’s discovery will advance our understanding of fundamental scientific problems, and enable us to develop better, and faster, treatments for a whole host of medical ailments – from infectious diseases to cancer.
“With the right combination of human and artificial intelligence, machines are a powerful force for good. The challenge is to build public trust in AI and showcase its enormous potential to improve our lives; DeepMind’s breakthrough will undoubtedly help that cause.”