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Gates Grant Funds A.I. for Malaria Drug Discovery

Giving anti-malaria drugs

Giving anti-malaria drugs in Angola, Africa (USAID.gov)

7 May 2018. An award from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is supporting research by a digital drug discovery company and university lab into use of artificial intelligence to find new drugs for treating malaria. The $546,000 grant is financing work by Recursion Pharmaceuticals in Salt Lake City, Utah and the infectious disease research lab led by Elizabeth Winzeler, professor of medicine at University of California in San Diego.

Malaria, according to World Health Organization, affected 216 million people in 2016, which extracts heavy social and economic burdens in developing countries. In 2016, some 445,000 people died from malaria, of which 90 percent were in sub-Sahara Africa. Children under the age of 5 are particularly susceptible to the disease. The disease is caused by infections from the plasmodium parasite transmitted by mosquitoes. In humans, the parasite multiplies in the liver, then infects red blood cells. Symptoms, including headache, fever, and vomiting, occur 10 to 15 days following transmission from a mosquito bite.

Fighting malaria is the primary objective of the Winzeler lab. The lab applies computational methods, including whole genome sequencing, to screen large arrays of chemical compounds for their potential in treating the disease. The Winzeler lab is part of a network of academic and industry labs called the Malaria Drug Accelerator, or Malda, also funded by the Gates Foundation that systematically applies a combination of chemistry and genomics to identify drug targets and mechanisms of action on the 50 most prominent compounds for treating malaria.

In January, Winzeler and colleagues published an analysis in the journal Science that identified previously unknown but feasible targets in the plasmodium parasite genome, as well as components of genes that support the parasite’s ability to resist drug treatments. In October 2017, Winzeler received an award from American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology for her lab’s discovery of two antimalarial compounds now in clinical trials.

Recursion Pharmaceuticals calls itself a tech-first drug discovery company that combines data and biological science. The company says it develops massive parallel screening protocols for drug discovery, but the data are captured and manipulated as cell images. Recursion’s approach applies artificial intelligence with computer vision and machine learning to analyze hundreds of thousands of these cell images, involving terabytes of data, each week. This analysis, says the company, returns precise computational fingerprints for a wide range of molecular variations.

Most of the company’s work up to now focused on mostly rare genetic diseases, with two candidates reaching preclinical research. The new project with malaria is Recursion’s first venture into infectious diseases, but the company expects to apply what it learns in this initiative to other infectious diseases.

“This grant provides us with an opportunity to explore the utility of our discovery platform in one infectious disease,” says Chris Gibson, Recursion’s CEO in a company statement, “and our hope is that one day soon we’ll be capitalizing on our innovations in automation, biology, and machine learning to discover potential new treatments for many infectious diseases.” Overall, Recursion’s goal is to discover 100 new treatments by 2025.

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