A new substance capable of killing superbugs that resist all known antibiotics has been discovered by a computer.
The overuse of antibiotics in recent decades has seen harmful bacteria evolve to the point where scientists fear current antibiotics could become useless.
Kiwi microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles in 2018 warned we were on the cusp of a possible superbug epidemic, with annual cases in New Zealand increasing six-fold in the previous decade.
"The thing that's frightening about them is they are able to share these resistant genes between them," she told Newshub at the time. "When one of them becomes resistant to antibiotics, it can share that resistance around."
But they might finally have met their match thanks to researchers in the US, who trained a computer algorithm to recognise compounds that had bacteria-killing properties, and look for new ones.
The computer picked out a molecule that looked nothing like existing antibiotics. When the researchers tested it on "the world's most problematic disease-causing bacteria, including some strains that are resistant to all known antibiotics", it killed all but one.
They named it halicin, after the murderous supercomputer from classic sci-fi film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
"We wanted to develop a platform that would allow us to harness the power of artificial intelligence to usher in a new age of antibiotic drug discovery," says James Collins of MIT's Institute for Medical Engineering and Science and Department of Biological Engineering.
"Our approach revealed this amazing molecule which is arguably one of the more powerful antibiotics that has been discovered."
Among the pathogens it obliterated were clostridium difficile, acinetobacter baumannii, and mycobacterium tuberculosis. It even killed off a strain of acinetobacter baumannii which has never been successfully treated before.
It works by preventing bacteria from producing molecules that store energy, and in more good news, scientists say this will be extremely difficult to evolve resistance against.
Their testing showed E. coli was able to increase its resistance to typical antibiotic ciprofloxacin by a factor of 200 in just 30 days, but didn't develop any resistance to halicin at all over the same time frame.
A number of other promising molecules were also singled out by the computer, which will also be undergoing tests soon.