how artificial intelligence can help us fight antibiotic resistance

Researchers are enlisting computers in the fight against drug-resistant bacteria and already have a promising new candidate in the pipeline.
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One of the biggest reasons why human life expectancy doubled in the last 70 years is our ability to find and manufacture antibiotics. Suddenly, diseases and infections that used to be leading causes of death were quickly and easily curable. Unfortunately, indiscriminate use of them both on the farm and in doctors’ offices meant that bacteria are starting to quickly evolve resistance to our medical arsenal against them and new, harder to treat versions of long curable diseases are starting to emerge in parts of the world which hand out antibiotics like candy. At the same time, we’re learning that antibiotic abuse has other downsides and can be detrimental to our quality of life over the long term.

These developments have researchers trying to find new weapons with which to fight bacteria and issuing restrictive recommendations to slow the pace of bacterial evolution. One of the big ideas is to start using custom-engineered viruses that infect bacteria instead of antibiotics, and some early trials are showing promise. Another is to genetically re-engineer the bacteria to tear down their defenses and take them down with existing drugs. But the easiest approach would be to simply identify new antibiotic compounds and use them wisely, incorporating everything we now know about them. Sadly, that’s easier said than done because we’ve picked all the low hanging fruit in this regard.

Enter artificial intelligence. By ingesting as much data as possible on thousands of antibiotic molecules, roughly 1,700 approved drugs, and 800 other useful chemicals, a special AI model was able to identify 24 potential new antibiotics, one of which was already known to science but as a potential diabetes treatment. The compound in question, halicin, apparently makes quick work of a whole range of hard to treat bacteria by destabilizing their electromagnetic balance, completely destroying them in the process. And yet, despite this ability, it seems non-toxic to human cells and performed well in an experiment on mice. At this rate, it may well be dispensed by your pharmacy in the next five to ten years.

While this is exciting news, we should really keep a few things in mind. It’s almost certain that bacteria will evolve resistance to our new batch of antibiotics. In the meantime, it could keep or lose resistance to ones we’ll stop using, and the fact that antibiotic compounds aren’t infinite, at some point we’ll either have to return to older antibiotics or think of something brand new. With this in mind, it’s important to remember that artificial intelligence won’t save us from this evolutionary arms race, it will just buy us time and might us an advantage for another 50 to 70 years. In the meantime, we have to be working on new methods to defeat harmful bacteria because while we may rest, the pathogens certainly won’t.

# science // antibiotic resistance / antibiotics / artificial intelligence

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