Can AI Rid the World of Disease?

June 24, 2021 - 5 minutes read

In late 2020, Alphabet – the parent company of Google – solved one of biology’s most challenging problems with the help of AI – predicting the structure of proteins. Alphabet’s DeepMind – a branch of Alphabet dedicated to the development and progress of AI – built AlphaFold, an AI designed specifically for this task and to everyone’s surprise…it worked.

Alphabet’s attempt to develop an AI that could predict protein structures was hugely successful when AlphaFold won a biennial protein-predicting challenge called CASP; something that hasn’t happened before in the history of mankind. Founder of the competition, John Moult, a computational biologist at the University of Maryland was astounded by the results noting “It was the first time a serious scientific problem had been solved by AI.”

Today, being able to predict protein structures in a repeatable verifiable method will undoubtedly accelerate the development of drugs and vaccines, reshape how organizations engage artificial intelligence app development and provide key insight into how diseases work, all thanks to AI.

AI and the Fight Against Chagas and Leishmaniasis

Flash forward 9 months, Alphabet’s DeepMind is on the hunt for another biological breakthrough, this time targeting some of the world’s most challenging diseases Chagas and Leishmaniasis. Chagas and Leishmaniasis are two of the world’s deadliest parasitic diseases transmitted by hosts known as assassin bugs. These two diseases alone are known to affect up to 23 million people worldwide.

The Challenges Associated with Deadly Parasitic Diseases

Unfortunately, today’s drugs and therapeutics are widely ineffective at treating both of these diseases and even worse “patients affected by neglected diseases like Leishmaniasis and Chagas disease rely on outdated treatments that are sometimes toxic, have serious side-effects, and are often not fit for purpose,” London-based Alphabet-owned lab known as Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative lead Ben Perry said.

For those affected, Chegas and Leishmaniasis can produce flu-like symptoms, rash, loss of appetite, Diarrhea, vomiting and in extreme cases without medical attention, death or permanent health complications. Understandably with 23 million people affected each year, primarily in underserved and neglected communities around the world, a more advanced medication or therapeutic to treat these parasitic diseases could be a game changer.

AI and the Future of Medicine

Now, after the massive scientific discovery made by AlphaFold related to predicting protein structures in late 2020, DeepMind may have the needed key to providing new advanced medication and therapeutics to fight changas and Leishmaniasis. Many diseases including these two deadly parasitic diseases are linked to the roles of proteins in catalysing chemical reactions and fighting diseases. By being able to predict and understand protein structures – specifically related to these parasitic diseases – DeepMind’s Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative now has the insight to provide medication or even a cure for these diseases. And AI isn’t only accelerating discovery in the world of biology and protein structures.

Just this week a new AI designed by the UAE has been proven to improve breast cancer detection, avoid unnecessary biopsies, and improve patient experience. The AI known as Mammography Intelligent Assessment (Mia) is the first AI-enabled monogram reader for breast cancer screening that is available commercially. By training the advanced AI Mia with millions of mammogram images, Mia is now producing mammogram readings that are as effective as a mammogram reading delivered by a consulting radiologist. Also Los Angeles-based UCLA’s Deepcell looks to build on these advances in AI-driven medical diagnostics to expand cell morphology to identify and sort cancer cells from clinical cytology cells.

Of course, this has far reaching implications for the medical industry, medical personnel and radiologists. Will AI augment how Radiologists diagnose and offer medical services, or will AI offer a low-cost alternative to diagnostics?

As AI continues to uncover the answers to biology’s biggest mysteries, what can we expect for the future? Could AI tackle some of mankind’s most challenging medical challenges such as cancer, aging or vaccines for tomorrow’s novel virus? It seems that only AI will be able to provide the answer to that question. With AI sweeping the competition at CASP and cracking the code of Leishmaniasis and Chagas, we are optimistic that we will continue to see massive medical and biological breakthroughs in the near future.

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