gray koala bear resting on a tree

DAILY DOSE: EcoHealth Alliance and NIH back together again; Koalas are being vaccinated against the Clap.

Looks like AI is ready to take on the role of a scientist. The pandemic taught us that when it comes to finding solutions, we need all the help we can get. Now, with generative AI helping to design more potent antibodies against viruses, we might be one step closer to overcoming some of the world’s most persistent diseases. Per Nature,

At the height of the pandemic, researchers raced to develop some of the first effective treatments against COVID-19: antibody molecules isolated from the blood of people who had recovered from the disease.

Now, scientists have shown that generative artificial intelligence (AI) can provide a shortcut through some of this laborious process, suggesting sequences that boost the potency of antibodies against viruses such as SARS-CoV-2 and ebolavirus. A study published last week in Nature Biotechnology1 is part of growing efforts to apply ‘neural networks’ similar to those behind the ChatGPT AI platform to antibody design.

Antibody drugs for diseases including breast cancer and rheumatoid arthritis bring in more than US$100 billion in worldwide sales each year. Researchers hope that generative AI — neural networks that can create text, images and other content on the basis of learnt patterns — will speed up development and help to unlock antibody drugs for targets that have resisted conventional design approaches.

“There’s intense interest in discovering and engineering antibodies, and how one makes antibodies better,” says Peter Kim, a biochemist at Stanford University in California, who co-led the Nature Biotechnology paper.

Who needs superheroes when you have AI?

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has restarted a research grant to the EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit research organization in New York City, three years after former US President Donald Trump pressured the agency to suspend it. Per Science,

Three years after then-President Donald Trump pressured the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to suspend a research grant to a U.S. group studying bat coronaviruses with partners in China, the agency has restarted the award.

The new 4-year grant is a stripped-down version of the original grant to the EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit research organization in New York City, providing $576,000 per year. That 2014 award included funding for controversial experiments that mixed parts of different bat viruses related to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the coronavirus that sparked a global outbreak in 2002–04, and included a subaward to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). The new award omits those studies, and also imposes extensive new accounting rules on EcoHealth, which drew criticism from government auditors for its bookkeeping practices.

But EcoHealth’s embattled director, Peter Daszak, says his group is pleased: “Now we have the ability to finally get back to work,” he says.

Needless to say, many people are not fans of this move, including many-a Republican lawmaker.

Australian scientists have begun vaccinating wild koalas against chlamydia in New South Wales. The aim is to protect them from a disease causing blindness, infertility, and death. Per the Associated Press,

Australian scientists have begun vaccinating wild koalas against chlamydia in an ambitious field trial in New South Wales.

The aim is to test a method for protecting the beloved marsupials against a widespread disease that causes blindness, infertility and death.

“It’s killing koalas because they become so sick they can’t climb trees to get food, or escape predators, and females can become infertile,” said Samuel Phillips, a microbiologist at the University of the Sunshine Coast who helped to develop the vaccine.

The scientists’ initial goal is to catch, vaccinate and monitor around half of the koala population in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales — that means vaccinating around 50 animals.

The safety and effectiveness of the single-shot vaccine, which has been designed specifically for koalas, has previously been tested by vaccinating a few hundred koalas brought to wildlife rescue centers for other afflictions.

Vaccines save lives. See?

Thanks for reading. Let’s be careful out there.


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