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AI ‘robot scientist’ discovers toothpaste could help fight malaria

(Evening Standard)– A robot using artificial intelligence has helped scientists discover an ingredient in toothpaste with properties that could fight drug-resistant malaria.

The “robot scientist”, called Eve, is able to screen 10,000 compounds a day — “learning” which work best as testing progresses, and excluding those known to harm humans.

Cambridge university researchers today revealed that Eve had established that triclosan, an antibacterial agent often found in toothpaste and soap, inhibits the growth of a key molecule in the malaria parasite.

Malaria, which is passed by mosquitos, kills more than 500,000 people a year, mainly in Africa and South-East Asia. A number of medicines are used to treat the disease but the parasites are becoming more resistant, raising the spectre of untreatable malaria.

Eve is the younger partner of Adam, which in 2009 became the first machine to independently discover new scientific knowledge. The robots speed up the drug discovery process and make it more economical — especially in fields such as tropical diseases, where profits can be too low to interest the pharmaceutical industry.

Professor Steve Oliver, of Cambridge University, said: “Eve exploits its artificial intelligence to learn from early successes in her screens and select compounds that have a high probability of being active against the chosen drug target. This reduces the costs, uncertainty, and time involved in drug screening, and has the potential to improve the lives of millions of people worldwide.”

The research, published in Scientific Reports, suggests triclosan — which prevents the build-up of plaque bacteria when used in toothpaste — will work on parasites in the liver and in blood.

Lead author Dr Elizabeth Bilsland said: “The discovery by our robot ‘colleague’ Eve that triclosan is effective against malaria targets offers hope that we may be able to use it to develop a new drug. We know it is a safe compound, and its ability to target two points in the malaria parasite’s lifecycle means the parasite will find it difficult to evolve resistance.”

Source:: Evening Standard

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