Health Tech Podcast

Microsoft offers $5M to UW Drugs to make use of AI to speed up response to subsequent pandemic

Scientists are using software to design new biomolecules that treat cancer and block viral infection. (Photo by Ian Haydon, UW Medicine Institute for Protein Design.)

The speed of the creation of vaccines for the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 was a modern marvel. You might already have already gotten yours, a little more than a year after the virus overtook the planet. But what if vaccines and therapeutics could emerge even faster in response to the next pandemic?

That’s one of the goals of a $5 million gift from Microsoft to the Institute for Protein Design at the University of Washington School of Medicine. The funding will be used to find new ways to apply artificial intelligence to protein design. One result, they hope, will be faster creation of therapeutics and vaccines in the next pandemic.

On this episode of the GeekWire Health Tech Podcast, we talk with Microsoft’s chief scientific officer, Eric Horvitz, and the director of the UW institute, David Baker, about their collaboration, and their aspirations for the new age of artificial intelligence and biotechnology.

Eric Horvitz, Microsoft chief scientific officer. (Microsoft Photo)

“In general, my feeling has been for three decades that AI generally, including machine learning, is a sleeping giant in healthcare, both in the biosciences as well as in in clinical medicine,” Horvitz said. “And I think we’re seeing the waking of that sleeping giant now.”

It’s the latest stage in the evolution of UW Medicine’s Institute for Protein Design, which focuses on the creation of de novo proteins, made from scratch rather than derived from nature. Proteins are molecules that carry out the critical functions in our bodies and all living things.

“If you take a protein that exists in nature, and you adapt it as a therapeutic, it’s never really perfect,” Baker said. “It didn’t evolve for that purpose.”

David Baker, director of the Institute for Protein Design. (UW Medicine Photo)

However, he explained, “if you can make things from scratch, then you really can put in all the properties you want, and leave out all the properties you don’t want. And then as machine learning gains steam in this area, and the capabilities grow and grow, I think it will be real game-changer.”

As an example of the potential, one of Baker’s colleagues at the Institute for Protein Design, Neil King, has designed COVID-19 vaccine candidates that appear to be more potent than those currently in use. Those vaccine candidates are currently undergoing clinical trials.

In announcing the gift, Microsoft and UW Medicine said they will start by identifying areas where neural networks and large-scale computing can be applied to protein design, and then collaborate on the development and manufacturing of new proteins for testing in the UW Medicine lab.

The implications of this new era of AI and protein design go beyond vaccines and pandemics, Baker said. “What I’d encourage everyone to think about is, now that we can design proteins with intent, what is possible?” he said. “I think we’re really just limited by our imaginations.”

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