Tech & Science

Researchers are using artificial intelligence to make a ‘Turbocharged’ flu vaccine

The drug is about to begin a 12-month clinical trial in the United States.

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An Australian anti-flu drug thought to be the first in the world to be fully developed using artificial intelligence is about to begin human trials, researchers have revealed.

The groundbreaking creation was developed at South Australia’s Flinders University using a sophisticated artificial intelligence algorithm called Search Algorithm for Ligands — otherwise known as SAM. The system was fed “good and bad” drugs by researchers and then trained to discover a substance which could ‘turbocharge’ the traditional flu vaccines capacity to safeguard against infection.

"SAM has the theoretical ability to acquire knowledge and then make new ideas," its creator Nikolai Petrovsky told the ABC.

"Obviously you have to train it or teach it,” he added. “We took existing drugs that we know work, and we took examples of drugs that don't work or have failed. We essentially showed all of that to the program, and then SAM came up with its own suggestions of what might be an effective adjuvant, which we then took and tested, and sure enough, it worked."

The new drug does not replace the traditional vaccine.

Instead, the drug’s unique sugar compound will combine with the pre-existing vaccine. The new and improved flu vaccine is then able to better target and activate particular immune receptors in the body.

By triggering an effective immune response, Petrovsky claims the flu vaccines ability to protect individuals will be doubled.

The drug will now be trialed in the United States over 12-months to examine its safety and success rate. The trial is expected to involve around 240 healthy volunteers, South Australian news publication the Lead reported.

The current flu vaccine, while still the best protection against the virus, is not 100% effective.

Lou Irving, a respiratory physician at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, told 3AW radio this week that around 20% of people who are vaccinated still get the flu. He explained that beyond being partially effective, the vaccine requires yearly administration and needs to be regularly adapted to accommodate the different strains of circulating influenza.

“The majority [of people who are vaccinated] should be confident that they are covered,” he stated. “But it’s not 100%.”

Australia is currently in the midst of a ‘horror’ flu season.

So far this year, the virus has killed at least 200 people and infected over 114,000 nationwide — compared with around 58,800 infections across all of 2018. A lack of community immunity and the simultaneous circulation of two different influenza A viruses have been linked to the surge in cases.

Like Irving, Petrovsky is keen to ensure all Australians receive the current flu vaccine. Petrovsky added that in the next few years, he hopes his new drug and continued influenza research will mean the vaccine can protect people better than ever before.

"We're not telling people not to have their flu shots, because that is still the best protection," he said. "But we can improve the flu shots, and that is really our mission — to make the vaccine more effective."

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