AI to play a major play in developing vaccines, treatments

2023.11.17 12:46:02 | 2023.11.17 16:08:08

[Photo by Korea Science Journalists Association]이미지 확대

[Photo by Korea Science Journalists Association]

Artificial intelligence (AI) is fast becoming a major tool in the 21st-century scientific era. It is poised to open new horizons in the development of vaccines and therapeutic treatments for various diseases that go beyond merely accelerating the development process and enabling tasks that were previously deemed impossible, according to Seok Chaok, a professor of chemistry at Seoul National University in Seoul, South Korea.

Her remarks were made during the Hwasun International Vaccine and Immunotherapy Forum which was held in Hwasun, South Jeolla Province, on Thursday. “If we know the structure of the viral protein, we can develop a vaccine by making a substance that effectively binds to the protein,” Seok said. “If we use AI to find out the interactions between proteins, we may be able to create a new class of drug candidates that cannot be discovered via traditional methods.”

While it is difficult for humans to analyze protein structures with hundreds to thousands of amino acids, AI can accurately decode protein structures in a matter of minutes to hours.

This possibility has already sparked competition between countries, with U.S. companies such as Isomorphic Labs founded by DeepMind CEO Demis Hassabis, Schrödinger Inc. (SDGR), and Generate Biomedicines among the leading players.

According to market research firm Precedence Research, the AI market in the field of biology is projected to grow to $363.37 million by 2032 from $74 million in 2022.

Seok, an expert in AI analysis of protein structures and interactions, has also entered the competition. She founded a new drug development venture company, Galux Inc., based on an AI program for protein structure and interaction analysis called ‘Galaxy,’ which she developed using 20 years of research. “To commercialize the program, we need to be able to design proteins, going beyond analyzing protein structures and interactions.”

The Hwasun International Vaccine and Immunotherapy Forum, whose theme was ‘New Technologies for Future Vaccines and Immunotherapy,’ brought together over 1,200 Korean and international scholars and industry professionals to explore strategies for responding to future infectious diseases and share the latest research on treating challenging diseases such as cancer.

Anne De Groot, CEO of U.S. biotechnology company EpiVax, Inc., introduced the use of AI to create personalized cancer vaccines. Cancer vaccines involve administering cancer-specific antigens present in cancer cells to activate the immune system, enhancing immune functions such as antibodies to eliminate cancer cells.

Cancer-specific antigens have very small molecular structures called ‘epitopes.’ Antibodies attach to antigens based on the induction of epitopes. For a cancer vaccine to be effective, the epitope must be well established. “The effectiveness of a cancer vaccine ultimately depends on how well the epitope is configured,” Groot said. “By utilizing AI, we can discover epitopes that are specific to cancer cells.” Additionally, it is possible to develop personalized cancer vaccines by analyzing patient cancer cells with AI.

EpiVax has created a platform called ‘Ancer’ using this principle and developed a personalized cancer vaccine ‘EVT-PCV-001,’ which is currently undergoing Phase 1 clinical trials. “We are looking to collaborate with Korean biotech companies and plan to have meetings with large Korean companies,” Groot said.

The forum also introduced Japan’s efforts to ‘profile’ the human immune system to develop effective vaccines and treatments. Japan established the Strategic Center of Biomedical Advanced Vaccine Research and Development for Preparedness and Response (SCARDA) in March 2022, with an investment of $2 billion. “One of SCARDA’s strategies is to understand people’s immune responses to promote rational and intelligent vaccine and treatment design,” according to Yoshimasa Takahashi, director of the Research Center for Drug and Vaccine at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID) of Japan.

By Ko Jae-won and Yoon Yeon-hae

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