DeepMind claims major breakthrough in understanding proteins

Discovery may dramatically speed up discovery of new drugs

Siddharth Venkataramakrishnan in London

DeepMind’s AlphaFold program can predict how proteins fold into three dimensions. © DeepMind

DeepMind, the UK-based artificial intelligence company owned by Alphabet, has said it can predict the structure of proteins, a breakthrough that could dramatically speed up the discovery of new drugs.

Scientists have spent decades trying to work out how proteins, which begin as strings of chemical compounds, fold into three-dimensional shapes, which then define their behaviour.

Identifying the shape of even a single protein can take years, but DeepMind said its AlphaFold system was able to provide accurate results, to within the width of an atom, within days.

“This advance is our first major breakthrough in a longstanding grand challenge in science,” said Demis Hassabis, founder and chief executive of DeepMind, adding that he hoped it would have “a big impact on our ability to understand disease and the biology of life”. 

DeepMind was acquired by Google in 2014 for £400m.

An understanding of proteins and the ways in which they behave could help researchers with their work on almost all diseases, including Covid-19.

Demis Hassabis, DeepMind founder and chief executive, said he hoped the breakthrough would have ‘a big impact on our ability to understand disease and the biology of life’

“Even tiny rearrangements of these vital molecules can have catastrophic effects on our health, so one of the most efficient ways to understand disease and find new treatments is to study the proteins involved,” said John Moult, the organiser of a global competition to solve protein folding.

There are also practical uses for DeepMind’s program in other scientific fields, such as finding enzymes that can be used to break down waste.

AlphaFold was trained on around 170,000 known structures over a few weeks. “To see DeepMind produce a solution for this, having worked personally on this problem for so long and after so many stops and starts wondering if we would ever get there, is a very special moment,” said Mr Moult.

“It will be exciting to see the many ways in which it will fundamentally change biological research,” said Professor Venki Ramakrishnan, Nobel laureate and president of the Royal Society, dubbing it a “stunning advance”.

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