(p. B1) Every two years, hundreds of scientists enter a global competition. Tackling a biological puzzle they call “the protein folding problem,” they try to predict the three-dimensional shape of proteins in the human body.
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Mohammed AlQuraishi, a biologist who has dedicated his career to this kind of research, flew in early December to Cancun, Mexico, where academics were gathering to discuss the results of the latest contest. As he checked into his hotel, a five-star resort on the Caribbean, he was consumed by melancholy.
The contest, the Critical Assessment of Structure Prediction, was not won by academics. It was won by DeepMind, the artificial intelligence lab owned by Google’s parent company.
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“It is not that machines are going to replace chemists,” said Derek Lowe, a longtime drug discovery researcher and the author of In the Pipeline, a widely read blog dedicated to drug discovery. “It’s that the chemists who use machines will replace those that don’t.”
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(p. 5) Working with two other computer scientists, the DeepMind researcher Rich Evans homed in on protein folding. They found a game that simulated this scientific task. They built a system that learned to play the game on its own, and the results were promising enough for DeepMind to greenlight a full-time research project.
The protein folding problem asks a straightforward question: Can you predict the physical structure of a protein — its shape in three dimensions?
If scientists can predict a protein’s shape, they can better determine how other molecules will “bind” to it — attach to it, physically — and that is one way drugs are developed. A drug binds to particular proteins in your body and changes their behavior.
In the latest contest, DeepMind made these predictions using “neural networks,” complex mathematical systems that can learn tasks by analyzing vast amounts of data. By analyzing thousands of proteins, a neural network can learn to predict the shape of others.
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Mr. Hassabis said DeepMind was committed to solving the protein folding problem. But many experts said that even if it was solved, more work was needed before doctors and patients benefited in any practical way.
“This is a first step,” said David Baker, the director of the Institute for Protein Design at the University of Washington. “There are so many other steps still to go.”
As they work to better understand the proteins in the body, for instance, scientists must also create new proteins that can serve as drug candidates. Dr. Baker now believes that creating proteins is more important to drug discovery than the “folding” methods being explored, and this task, he said, is not as well suited to DeepMind-style A.I.
DeepMind researchers focus on games and contests because they can show a clear improvement in artificial intelligence. But it is not clear how that approach translates to many tasks.
“Because of the complexity of drug discovery, we need a wide variety of tools,” Dr. Alvarez said. “There is no one-size-fits-all answer.”
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(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 5, 2019, and has the title “Making New Drugs With a Dose of Artificial Intelligence.”)