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Machine Learning Comes to Biochemistry

Accepted submission by takyon at 2019-02-13 01:18:38
Science

Making New Drugs With a Dose of Artificial Intelligence [nytimes.com]

Every two years, hundreds of scientists enter a global competition. Tackling a biological puzzle they call "the protein folding problem," they try to predict the three-dimensional shape of proteins in the human body. No one knows how to solve the problem. Even the winners only chip away at it. But a solution could streamline the way scientists create new medicines and fight disease.

Mohammed AlQuraishi, a biologist who has dedicated his career to this kind of research, flew in early December to Cancun, Mexico, where academics were gathering to discuss the results of the latest contest. As he checked into his hotel, a five-star resort on the Caribbean, he was consumed by melancholy. The contest, the Critical Assessment of Structure Prediction, was not won by academics. It was won by DeepMind, the artificial intelligence lab owned by Google's parent company. "I was surprised and deflated," said Dr. AlQuraishi, a researcher at Harvard Medical School. "They were way out in front of everyone else."

[...] "It is not that machines are going to replace chemists," said Derek Lowe, a longtime drug discovery researcher and the author of In the Pipeline, a widely read blog dedicated to drug discovery. "It's that the chemists who use machines will replace those that don't."

After the conference in Cancun, Dr. AlQuraishi described his experience in a blog post [wordpress.com]. The melancholy he felt after losing to DeepMind gave way to what he called "a more rational assessment of the value of scientific progress." But he strongly criticized big pharmaceutical companies like Merck and Novartis, as well as his academic community, for not keeping pace.


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