AI-designed influenza vaccine goes on trial

In a world first, a flu vaccine completely designed by artificial intelligence is about to be trialled on humans.

Doctors hope it'll be an improvement on the existing vaccines that are available for the infectious disease, which is estimated to kill 500 people every year in New Zealand.

"Despite currently available vaccines, flu remains a very major global health problem," said Flinders University's Nikolai Petrovsky, who developed the new vaccine - with a little help.

"This represents the start of a new era where artificial intelligence is going to play an increasingly dominant role in drug discovery and design."

While computers have been used to create vaccines in the past, this one was designed completely by software Dr Petrovsky and his team designed called SAM (Search Algorithm for Ligands). It uses adjuvants, which enhances the body's immune response, alongside the usual antigen - the foreign substance the body learns to fight against. 

Dr Petrovsky says many people are getting infected this year despite being vaccinated, as the existing method is quite hit-and-miss thanks to the fast evolution of the virus. 

"It is tremendous to see such a promising vaccine that we developed with the very first human trials being done at Flinders, progressing onto the world stage," said team member Dimitar Sajkov.

The first human guinea pigs will be 240 people from the US, and take about 12 months to complete.

Otago University research in 2017 found influenza is responsible for 500 deaths a year in New Zealand, with Māori, Pasifika, men and the poor most at risk.



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