So many medical advances emanate from the brilliant minds of UK scientists. They should be celebrated. Here are two more.
PROTEINS – ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE GAME CHANGER
“Biology’s “holy grail” will unlock new treatments to fight disease” (The Times, 1 December)
“This will change medicine. This will change research. It will change bioengineering. It will change everything.” (Scientific American quoting Andrei Lupas).
Basically, it’s a game changer. What is it? It is the discovery of the ability, using Artificial Intelligence, to predict the structure of proteins, known as the problem of protein folding, and which is referred to sometimes as visualising the structure. This discovery was made by Deepmind, a company in the Google group focussed on computer technology, especially AI.
This has produced a joyous excitement of a reaction from scientists, worldwide. It is reported that Professor Ewan Birney, a Cambridge biochemist, and also of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, responded to the news saying “I nearly fell off my chair when I saw these results…This is a huge advance for science. It is hard to know what the effect will be because it has been such a holy grail”.
This is apparently about the internal machinery of the cell, the machinery of life. It seems that it is often the fault of proteins when biology goes awry from a human point of view. Finding a drug that may be effective in treating a condition may depend on understanding the appearance, the 3D structure, of a relevant protein or proteins (a protein being composed of a combination of amino acids). So, the most obvious impact of the discovery is in the treatment of diseases. Before this computer driven solution, predicting a protein structure has been a massively laborious task, perhaps taking years. Whereas this new AI based method can do the job in days, thus enhancing significantly drug discovery. The current Covid pandemic has opened the eyes of the world on the importance of speed in drug development, which ordinary people can now associate with.
The benefits of applying this technology could apparently also be in scientific fields which are barely active today. The Times quoted Dame Janet Thornton of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, who said she had thought she would never see the protein-folding problem solved, and “Designing proteins could be helpful in many areas: protein therapeutics, green enzymes that will chew up plastics and get rid of waste”.
Deepmind was a start-up business founded in 2010 by Demis Hassabis, Steve Legge and Mustafa Suleyman. Its computer technology focussed mainly on computer games design. It has been applying its algorithmic skills to the protein structure problem since 2018. Demis Hassabis, son of first-generation immigrants to the UK, father from Cyprus and mother from Singapore, leads Deepmind. He was a child chess prodigy, aged 12 number 2 in the world for his age group. His goal has been “to solve intelligence”. Deepmind operates in London apparently quite independently from the rest of the Google group, according to a Times article. There is much work still to be done developing a programme around proteins; it is to be hoped that Deepmind will make its technology available to the academic world and the biology industry.
Janet Thornton was quoted “The exciting thing is, this isn’t the end of something. It is the beginning of many new things”. Is it not surprising that this game changer received so little attention in the media? Major medical advances seem to go relatively unnoticed so often, when in fact the UK and the world should be celebrating.
CHILD-KILLER MALARIA: IS THE CAVALRY ON THE WAY?
Boris Johnson hailed the vaccine for Covid-19 (CV) as the cavalry arriving. The Jenner Institute of Oxford University recently announced it is to enter the final stage of human trials for a vaccine (MV) to combat malaria. This Oxford team is also behind the Oxford Covid-19 vaccine awaiting UK regulatory approval.
To get malaria in perspective. In this century alone massive progress has been made in reducing cases and especially deaths from malaria. However, in 2018 there were still some 416,000 malaria deaths out of some 228 million cases. Africa accounts for about 93%. And it is children under 5 who are worst affected, representing some 67% of deaths.
Adrian Hill, Director of the Jenner Institute, is quoted in the Times of 5 December “Malaria is a public health emergency. A lot more people will die in Africa this year than will die from Covid…I don’t mean twice as many – probably 10 times”. And deaths from CV are mainly from among the very old. Not children under 5. If this MV is successful, it could he says be rolled out in 2024. Oxford University is partnering with Serum Institute in India, the world’s largest vaccine maker, and it estimates it could make 200-300 million doses a year.
It is interesting to note that the CV vaccines will have taken less than a year from a standing start to roll-out, and yet the MV which is starting final trials now will not be ready for 4 more years. Why the difference in timing at this stage of development? Maybe a dose of more urgency would be welcome.
Adrian Hill, in the Times, spelt out two good reasons why no highly effective vaccine for malaria has been found before, despite efforts since 1908. First, it is a hard nut to crack; malaria is a parasite, not a virus. Apparently, a parasite can switch and change the proteins on their surface, disguising themselves. Adrian Hill, who has been working on a malaria vaccine for 30 years, says “A coronavirus has a few proteins, a malaria parasite has 5000.” Second, it seems that malaria does not attract the attention CV has attracted. For CV there has been a bottomless pit of funding in developed countries to fight it. Other medical concerns have often had to come second to CV. Malaria of course does not really affect the richer countries of the world. Adrian Hill is quoted “You have to keep re-applying for funding milestones…every step along the way. And that is just terrible in a world where children are dying”.
To its credit, the UK has been a leading nation in tackling malaria: it promises £500 million a year since 2016, a huge donation to the malaria affected world. Will that be affected by budget cuts, reductions in Development Aid? Surely, for example, aid sent to China will be out first, as it is a wealthy country, albeit most of its people remain in poverty though it boasts a massive military budget. This vaccine cavalry MV, if successful, will be another game changer, a major contribution to medicine by UK scientists, again to be celebrated.
Could it also be that advances in predicting protein structuring by Deepmind will also aid the malaria war?
None of this is to suggest that the UK is any better a country than any other. But perhaps those who delight in continual knocking of the UK’s status in the world and its diminution might spend at least a line or two in crediting UK people with helping save lives across the world through scientific brilliance. If the Oxford CV vaccine gets approved, it will be available at cost to all low -income countries. That looks like taking a global caring view of humanity, which is commendable. If malaria gets beaten, that will be another example.