As the Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) raged on the planet, the global medical community is racing against time to create a vaccine for the disease. As Jonathan Corum of the New York Times reports, there are more than 179 vaccines made by different countries and pharmaceutical companies in different stages. The majority of them are still in the preclinical trial and only two are in the last stage bound for approval. Vaccines and other forms of medicine usually take years, even decades of research and trials before hitting the market but with the extraordinary circumstance we have right now, scientists and doctors are working non-stop to manufacture and distribute an effective and safe vaccine by next year.
This race doesn’t come without a hefty price, with different governments around the world spending a lot of money to fund research. The United States Federal Government, for example, has allotted more than $9 billion of funding from tax dollars and distributed it to different pharmaceutical companies working on a vaccine.
Time is a luxury we don’t have in fighting off this invisible enemy which infected more than 22 million people worldwide, leaving more than a quarter-million of casualties at its wake. And with countries registering an upsurge of new cases again, signifying a so-called second wave outbreak of the disease, scientists may have to resort to other means to speed up the whole process.
AI or artificial intelligence has shown a promising place in the field of medicine, most especially in pharmacology or the study of drugs. With its increasing ability and skills in image, voice, and text recognition, scientists have shown interest in how to harness this potential to expedite the tedious process of discovering drugs.
In particular, a biophysicist with a background with computer science by the name of Alex Zhakarov, was able to use AI’s capabilities to cut the time of research in drug development. As Peter H. Diamandis, M.D. reports on the website Singularity Hub, he and his team have used a technology known as Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs). With this technology, they worked on the millions of data available to them to come up with new findings at record-breaking speeds.
Insilico Medicine, the institute he established, is now working new drugs for different diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s, and diabetes to name a few.
Not only AI is proven useful for discovering new drugs to cure diseases but also in the process of identifying new drug targets. Again, this is another long process in developing drugs. However, due to the complexity of the issue at hand involving bodily proteins, research surrounding this field has seen limited success. But scientists are still hopeful that they can go past the technical limitations of AI in the present to achieve more in the foreseeable future.
Big pharma has been pushing itself to improve and hasten their internal drug research and development for the past years but with the urgent issue of the COVID-19 pandemic knocking on their doors, we may see AI playing a bigger role not only in the quest to find a safe and effective vaccine but also in the world of medicine as a whole. As AI technologies grow more sophisticated every day, this might not be just an outrageous dream but a reality we can all live in – hopefully soon.