DeepMind hopes its unrivaled collection of data, enabled by artificial intelligence, may advance development of precision medicines, new medical laboratory tests, and therapeutic treatments
‘Tis the season for giving, and one United Kingdom-based artificial intelligence (AI) research laboratory is making a sizeable gift. After using AI and machine learning to create “the most comprehensive map of human proteins,” in existence, DeepMind, a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc. (NASDAQ:GOOGL), parent company of Google, plans to give away for free its database of millions of protein structure predictions to the global scientific community and to all of humanity, The Verge reported.
Pathologists and clinical laboratory scientists developing proteomic assays understand the significance of this gesture. They know how difficult and expensive it is to determine protein structures using sequencing of amino acids. That’s because the various types of amino acids in use cause the [DNA] string to “fold.” Thus, the availability of this data may accelerate the development of more diagnostic tests based on proteomics.
“For decades, scientists have been trying to find a method to reliably determine a protein’s structure just from its sequence of amino acids. Attraction and repulsion between the 20 different types of amino acids cause the string to fold in a feat of ‘spontaneous origami,’ forming the intricate curls, loops, and pleats of a protein’s 3D structure. This grand scientific challenge is known as the protein-folding problem,” a DeepMind statement noted.
Enter DeepMind’s AlphaFold AI platform to help iron things out. “Experimental techniques for determining structures are painstakingly laborious and time consuming (sometimes taking years and millions of dollars). Our latest version [of AlphaFold] can now predict the shape of a protein, at scale and in minutes, down to atomic accuracy. This is a significant breakthrough and highlights the impact AI can have on science,” DeepMind stated.
Release of Data Will Be ‘Transformative’
In July, DeepMind announced it would begin releasing data from its AlphaFold Protein Structure Database which contains “predictions for the structure of some 350,000 proteins across 20 different organisms,” The Verge reported, adding, “Most significantly, the release includes predictions for 98% of all human proteins, around 20,000 different structures, which are collectively known as the human proteome. By the end of the year, DeepMind hopes to release predictions for 100 million protein structures.”
According to Edith Heard, PhD, Director General of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), the open release of such a dataset will be “transformative for our understanding of how life works,” The Verge reported.
Free Data about Proteins Will Accelerate Research on Diseases, Treatments
Research into how protein folds and, thereby, functions could have implications to fighting diseases and developing new medicines, according to DeepMind.
“This will be one of the most important datasets since the mapping of the human genome,” said Ewan Birney, PhD, Deputy Director General of the EMBL, in the DeepMind statement. EMBL worked with DeepMind on the dataset.
DeepMind protein prediction data are already being used by scientists in medical research. “Anyone can use it for anything. They just need to credit the people involved in the citation,” said Demis Hassabis, DeepMind CEO and Co-founder, in The Verge.
In a blog article, Hassabis listed several projects and organizations already using AlphaFold. They include:
- Cures for diseases affecting neglected communities worldwide: Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative.
- Faster enzymes for recycling: Centre for Enzyme Innovation, University of Portsmouth.
- Antibiotic resistance: University of Colorado Boulder.
- SARS-CoV-2 biology research: University of California San Francisco.
“As researchers seek cures for diseases and pursue solutions to other big problems facing humankind—including antibiotic resistance, microplastic pollution, and climate change—they will benefit from fresh insights in the structure of proteins,” Hassabis wrote.
Because of the deep financial backing that Alphabet/Google can offer, it is reasonable to predict that DeepMind will make progress with its AI technology that regularly adds capabilities and accuracy, allowing AlphaFold to be effective for many uses.
This will be particularly true for the development of new diagnostic assays that will give clinical laboratories better tools for diagnosing disease earlier and more accurately.
—Donna Marie Pocius