Researchers at Flinders University have developed a new flu vaccine believed to be the first in the world to be completely designed by artificial intelligence (AI). The technology is expected to be able to create better vaccines for a lower price. These new vaccines could be discovered and tested at a much faster pace than ever before.

Drugs have been designed using computers before, but Flinders University Professor Nikolai Petrovsky and his team went one step further. They created an AI program called SAM (Search Algorithm for Ligands). The program searches for all conceivable compounds in the known universe to find effective drugs for human use (also called ligands). Their recent success was not their first noticeable one. In 2009, the team was the first to develop a swine flu vaccine.

“We had to teach the AI program on a set of compounds that are known to activate the human immune system, and a set of compounds that don’t work. The job of the AI was then to work out for itself what distinguished a drug that worked from one that doesn’t,” Petrovsky said for Business Insider, who is also the Research Director of Australian biotechnology company Vaxine.

Researchers also developed a program called “Synthetic Chemist”. It generated trillions of different chemical compounds that SAM analyzed. SAM delivered candidates that it thought might be good human immune drugs. The team took the top candidates, synthesized them in a lab and tested them on human blood cells.

“This confirmed that SAM not only had the ability to identify good drugs but in fact had come up with better human immune drugs than currently exist,” Petrovsky said. “So we then took these drugs created by SAM into development with animal testing to confirm their ability to boost influenza vaccine effectiveness.”

According to Petrovsky, this research approach could shorten the normal drug discovery and development process. The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) saw potential and funded research from the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases fund. The team has organized 12-month clinical trials across the US.

“We already know from animal testing that the vaccine is highly protective against flu, outperforming the existing vaccines. Now we just need to confirm this in humans,” Petrovsky said.

Influenza virus causes acute respiratory infections and is the most likely cause of large epidemics in humans among all known pathogens. This year, there is a high number of influenza-related cases in Australia. At least 228 people have already died from flu-related complications across Australia before June 2019. Associate Professor Dimitar Sajkov highlighted the need for a better flu vaccine.

“It is tremendous to see such a promising vaccine that we developed with the very first human trials being done at Flinders, progressing onto the world stage,” said Sajkov. “So far in 2019 there have been over 96 thousand confirmed cases across Australia. The number in WA nearly doubled to 10 thousand, as did the number of deaths, there have been 57 deaths recorded in NSW, 44 in SA, and nearly 40 in Queensland.”

Researchers hope this vaccine will prove to be more effective than the existing ones. If so, it could even replace them as the standard seasonal flu shot. Even more important, the same technology could be applied to improve or develop many other vaccines. Petrovsky hopes his team will receive funding for upgrading the technology and development of new vaccines.

Learn some interesting facts about AI in the video below:

By Andreja Gregoric, MSc