Antibiotic Against Superbugs Discovered By AI

Anyone who has seen the cinematic classic "2001: A Space Odyssey" knows that HAL 9000 is an artificial intelligence (AI) that was no friend to anyone who manned the fictional ship Discovery One. Capable and very smart, the AI was the movie’s main antagonist, attempting to kill all of the crew during its runtime.

With that in mind, researchers from MIT are hoping that its namesake halicin won’t do the same. Thankfully, it’s proving to be more help than danger since an AI program reportedly discovered a new antibiotic that was able to kill around 35 powerful bacteria, including those that are deemed untreatable by current available antibiotics.

As such, this new discovery offers hope at a time of public fear and unease, what with the World Health Organization announcing last year that one of the world’s current top global threats is antimicrobial resistance, alongside HIV, climate change and flu pandemics. Fortunately, new technology is proving to be of very good help for the fight against these global problems, given that a worldwide overhaul is needed to make sure the situation doesn’t worsen.

Per the researchers behind it, the MIT AI algorithm reportedly discovered halicin by studying how various chemicals are constructed, as well as using its knowledge of existing antibiotics to make predictions as to how each molecule might be effective against specific bacteria. This knowledge also reportedly stopped it from creating medicine that is similar to other compounds that have already been made, some of which are already ineffective because the bacteria has developed resistance against them.

Industry Limits And The Promise Of Automation

One problem as to why it took this long to find a new antibiotic is that the creation of more potent drugs is expensive, which is why even big drug makers have weak incentives in order to develop new ones.

The AI-based antibiotic research can prove revolutionary in this case since it suggests automation can help reduce the costs that are needed to carry out clinical trials and find new compounds. That is, however, if it doesn’t turn against us the way HAL 9000 did in the movie.

Antibiotic Resistance Jean Lee, a PhD student at Melbourne's Doherty Institute, displays the superbug Staphylococcus epidermidis on an agar plate in Melbourne on September 4, 2018. A new study shows that some bacteria enter “zombie mode” when detecting antibiotics, which experts believe contribute to their resistance to treatments. William West/AFP/Getty Images

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