AI scientist finds potential antimalarial drug in common toothpaste

18 Jan 2018

Image: Billion Photos/Shutterstock

A robot scientist called Eve has been instrumental in the discovery of a possible antimalarial drug in a toothpaste ingredient.

In the ongoing battle between scientists and malaria, the former are searching for an ace up their sleeve that can give them the upper hand in these challenging times.

While many antimalarial drugs exist on the open market, many of them are becoming increasingly ineffective as newer strains develop resistance to our efforts to stop them.

This is potentially putting hundreds of thousands of people across the world at risk in areas such as Africa and south-east Asia where mosquitos are in abundance.

But now, scientists at the University of Cambridge have found their potential solution in the form of Eve, a robotic assistant powered by artificial intelligence (AI) specifically designed to sniff out new drug candidates.

In a paper published to Scientific Reports, the research team revealed how, by using Eve in a high-throughput screen, it was able to find that a common ingredient in toothpaste, triclosan, might hold the key to overcoming drug resistance in malaria.

Hidden under our noses

When used in toothpaste, triclosan prevents the build-up of plaque bacteria by inhibiting the action of an enzyme known as enoyl reductase (ENR), which is involved in the production of fatty acids.

It had also been known to science that triclosan inhibits the growth in culture of the malaria parasite, plasmodium, during the blood stage.

This, researchers presumed, was because it targeted ENR found in the human liver, but they subsequently found that this was not the case.

By using Eve, the research team discovered that triclosan affects parasite growth by specifically inhibiting an entirely different enzyme of the malaria parasite, called DHFR, which is the target of the well-established antimalarial drug pyrimethamine.

A drug using triclosan would be able to target and act on this enzyme even in pyrimethamine-resistant parasites.

AI’s role in drug discovery

“The discovery by our robot ‘colleague’ Eve that triclosan is effective against malaria targets offers hope that we may be able to use it to develop a new drug,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Elizabeth Bilsland.

“We know it is a safe compound, and its ability to target two points in the malaria parasite’s life cycle means the parasite will find it difficult to evolve resistance.”

Eve’s role in the discovery was paramount as the robot was able to automate, and therefore speed up, much of the drug discovery process.

Eve’s developer, Prof Ross King, said: “AI and machine learning enables us to create automated scientists that do not just take a ‘brute force’ approach, but rather take an intelligent approach to science.

“This could greatly speed up the drug discovery progress and potentially reap huge rewards.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic