If your day job doesn't involve drug discovery or understanding the molecular biology that underpins disease, then you might have missed what is possibly the most seismic advance in health science since the discovery of the smallpox vaccine.
The complexity of the problem and the innumerable applications allowed by the solution, makes solving the protein-folding problem by AlphaFold a truly magnificent leap forward for mankind.
To bring you into the picture, AlphaFold is open-source AI developed by DeepMind (a subsidiary of Google's parent company, Alphabet). In 2020, while we were all distracted by COVID-19, AlphaFold quietly presented the world with the holy grail of the biological sciences - the ability to accurately predict the three demential structure of protein from a sequence of amino acids. If that does't sound earth shattering... keep reading. Proteins are strings of amino-acids that are folded up into a very particular shape.
A typical string of amino-acids can bend and fold in more ways than there are particles in the observable universe. Many more in-fact. Up to 10 to the power of 300.
Until now we've used X-ray crystallography (a process that would take years of work and cost tens-of-thousands of dollars) to figure out the shape of just one protein. AlphaFold will determine the shapes of 100 million proteins this year alone. It's an accomplishment of unfathomable significance. The fact that DeepMind has made this software "open source" has meant that over 500,000 researches from around the world have already downloaded and started using the software. By the end of the year, the 3D structure of over half of all known proteins will be determined.
Armed with the knowledge of the shape of proteins, drug discovery will be orders of magnitude faster and cheaper. Our understand of the pathophysiology that underpins all disease will come into sharper focus. Most people alive today will directly or indirectly benefit from this technology.
DeepMind is focussing on solving the biggest problems facing humanity. Protein folding is only the beginning. DeepMind CEO, Demis Hassabis has now focussed his attention on nuclear fusion (safe, clean, unlimited energy) that has been dangling in front of us as a solution to the climate crisis for years.
We've had a tough couple of years. A pandemic. A war in Ukraine. A little celebration is called for, I think. Let's accept a win on this one and look forward to what else AI will bring to healthcare in the years ahead.
This newsletter is about Public Health and technologies like AI that are likely to impact the world around us. Please do share it with others who might be interested.