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Artificial intelligence combats lethal superbug, new antibiotic discovered

A new antibiotic called abaucin that can kill a deadly, drug-resistant pathogen has been discovered with the help of artificial intelligence (AI).

Research published in Nature Chemical Biology showed that AI was able to rapidly screen 7,500 molecules that were found to inhibit the growth of the superbug Acinetobacter baumannii, a task that would be difficult to do manually. In one and a half hours, the AI narrowed down on 250 potential compounds, which were then tested in the laboratory. The most potent one of all was found to be the antibiotic abaucin.

Battling the superbug

Acinetobacter baumannii is a gram-negative bacteria, which upon entering the bloodstream, can cause fever, chills and vomiting. It can also lead to pneumonia and urinary tract infections, and can be fatal for extremely ill patients.

As the bacteria is multi-drug resistant, it makes it harder to develop drugs to target infection caused by the superbug. As more than a million people die from treatment-resistant bacterial infections every year, there is an unmet need for therapies to target difficult-to-treat diseases and expand treatment options. 

The pathogen was one of the top on a list of bacteria for which new antibiotics are urgently needed, which was published by the World Health Organization (WHO). It poses a threat to people with open wounds and to hospitals – where it can survive on medical equipment and surfaces – as the infection is regarded as nosocomial.

What is abaucin?

Abaucin is a novel antibiotic that is capable of disrupting lipoprotein trafficking, a key process in cellular protein transportation. While its antibiotic properties have been successfully investigated during this study, more is yet to be revealed about the compound and its efficacy.

Although the drug was effective against Acinetobacter baumannii, it seemed to have no effect on other strains of bacteria.

Drug discovery: AI over the years

For this study, the scientists first trained the AI to learn the chemical properties of the drug by feeding it information that was found by observing the compounds against Acinetobacter baumannii. As drug development is yet to begin with potential clinical trials further ahead, this could be the first AI antibiotic to be prescribed.

Previously, the compound halicin, which was discovered through AI, was being studied against Escherichia coli – a gram negative bacterium that can cause urinary tract infections, pneumonia, bacteremia, and meningitis.

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