Technological advancements have always surprised the medical industry with enormous opportunities for diagnosis, cure, and wellness. Over years AI is facilitating the industry with enhanced performance through novel techniques.
Now, the big news of AI interventions to study every protein made by the human body is adding a greater sparkle of hope to the medical industry. The possibility of using Artificial intelligence to predict the structures of almost every protein made by the human body could help supercharge the discovery of new drugs to treat disease, alongside other applications.
Proteins are known as the essential building blocks of living organisms wherein getting deep know-how on them is going to be critical for advancing medicine. Though only a fraction of these has been worked out to date, the industry is looking forward with greater hope.
Researchers used a program called AlphaFold to predict the structures of 350,000 proteins belonging to humans and other organisms. As the instructions for making human proteins are contained in our genomes – the DNA contained in the nuclei of human cells, the AI integrated study will help detect this and facilitate drug formations. There are around 20,000 of these proteins expressed by the human genome. Collectively, biologists refer to this full complement as the “proteome”.
In response to the results from AlphaFold, Dr. Demis Hassabis, chief executive and co-founder of artificial intelligence company Deep Mind, said: “We believe it’s the most complete and accurate picture of the human proteome to date and also this work represents the most significant contribution AI has made to advancing the state of scientific knowledge to date, and I think it’s a great illustration and example of the kind of benefits AI can bring to society.” He added: “We’re just so excited to see what the community is going to do with this.” The research could lead to enzymes that can also break down the plastic polluting our environment.
Proteins are made up of chains of smaller building blocks called amino acids. These chains fold in myriad different ways, forming a unique 3D shape. A protein’s shape determines its function in the human body.
AlphaFold predicted 350,000 protein structures, that consist of 20,000 human proteome and also model organisms used in scientific research, such as E. coli, yeast, the fruit fly, and the mouse.
AlphaFold made a confident prediction of the structural positions for 58% of the amino acids in the human proteome. The positions of 35.7% were predicted with a very high degree of confidence – double the number confirmed by experiments. This giant leap in capability is described by DeepMind researchers and a team from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in the prestigious journal Nature.
Traditional protein structure defining techniques like X-ray crystallography, cryogenic electron microscopy (Cryo-EM), and others are expensive and also consume more time. Thus the 3D shapes are often determined as part of targeted scientific investigations, but no project has proceeded systematically for determining structures for all the proteins made by the body. To date, just 17% of the proteome is covered by a structure confirmed experimentally.
Commenting on the predictions from AlphaFold, Prof McGeehan said: “It’s just the speed – the fact that it was taking us six months per structure and now it takes a couple of minutes. We couldn’t have predicted that would happen so fast.” “When we first sent our seven sequences to the DeepMind team, two of those we already had the experimental structures for. So we were able to test those when they came back. It was one of those moments – to be honest – where the hairs stood up on the back of my neck because the structures AlphaFold produced were identical.”
Prof Edith Heard, from EMBL, said: “This will be transformative for our understanding of how life works. That’s because proteins represent the fundamental building blocks from which living organisms are made.” He also added that “The applications are limited only by our understanding.”
These applications will support in developing new drugs and treatments for disease, designing climate change-resistant crops, and enzymes that can break down the plastic that pollutes the environment.
Dr. Ewan Birney, director of EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute, said the AlphaFold predicted structures were “one of the most important datasets since the mapping of the human genome”. DeepMind and EMBL are in collaboration to make the AlphaFold code and protein structure predictions openly available to the global scientific community. Dr. Hassabis said, “DeepMind planned to vastly expand the coverage in the database to almost every sequenced protein known to science – over 100 million structures.”