Four months ago, Atomwise launched a virtual search for safe, existing medicines that could be repurposed to treat the Ebola virus. This week, the first evidence has been found that two drugs predicted by Atomwise’s artificial intelligence technology may significantly reduce Ebola infectivity. These drugs were intended for unrelated illnesses and their potential to treat Ebola was previously unknown. Once finished, the complete results of this work are intended for publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
“This strategy could be immediately applied to other pathogens, like avian flu, measles, and drug-resistant tuberculosis.”
“This is an exciting step towards the dream of using artificial intelligence to help fight fast-moving diseases,” said Dr. Abraham Heifets, CEO of Atomwise. “This strategy could be immediately applied to other pathogens, like avian flu, measles, and drug-resistant tuberculosis.” Atomwise has previously been used in drug research for cancer, multiple sclerosis, and antibiotics.
Atomwise’s process began by preparing a virtual model of the “claw” Ebola uses to enter cells. Next, a brain-like neural network, which had been trained to analyze drugs like a human chemist, evaluated how 7,000 existing drugs interacted with that “claw”. This analysis, which would typically take months or years to perform, was completed in less than one day. All the drugs evaluated had passed through phase II or later clinical trials, or were already marketed to patients, which means they have a known safety profile.
Independent researchers then dosed human cells with the top-20 drugs predicted by Atomwise, and exposed those cells to a hybrid Ebola virus. Rather than killing them, this modified virus causes cells to produce glowing fluorescent protein if infected. If the cells remained “dark”, the drugs may have prevented Ebola infection. Using this test, two of the drugs resulted in dark cells, which may indicate a potential treatment.
“If we can fight back against deadly viruses months or years faster, that represents tens of thousands of lives.”
Considerable work remains to confirm the potential of these treatments for Ebola. But these early results may help demonstrate a new method for rapidly responding to health crises. For ethical reasons, Atomwise is not yet releasing the names of the drugs. It is also taking steps to protect the use of these drugs for humanitarian purposes.
The current Ebola outbreak has infected an estimated 25,000 people, and caused more than 10,000 deaths. “If we can fight back against deadly viruses months or years faster, that represents tens of thousands of lives.” said Alexander Levy, COO of Atomwise. “Imagine how many people might survive the next pandemic because a technology like Atomwise exists.”