In this round-up we will be looking at some of the developments and challenges surrounding artificial intelligence.
Development and Collaborations
The Organisation for Economic Development (OECD) has launched its Artificial Intelligence (AI) Observatory, which aims to help countries encourage, nurture and monitor the responsible development of trustworthy AI systems for the benefit of society.
The Observatory works with policy communities across and beyond the OECD - from the digital economy and science and technology policy, to employment, health, consumer protection, education and transport policy – considering the opportunities and challenges posed by current and future AI developments in a coherent, holistic manner.
The AI Observatory is being built on evidence-based analysis and provides a centre for the collection and sharing of information on AI, leveraging the OECD’s reputation for measurement methodologies. The Observatory will also engage a wide spectrum of stakeholders from the technical community, the private sector, academia, civil society and other international organisations, providing a hub for dialogue and collaboration.
According to a report produced by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) Health and The McKinsey Centre for Government (MCG), AI can increase productivity and the efficiency of care delivery, allowing healthcare systems to provide better outcomes for patients.
The WHO estimates that by 2030 the world will be short of 9.9 million doctors, nurses and midwives, which adds to the challenges faced by an already overburdened healthcare system. Supporting the widespread adoption and scaling of AI could help alleviate this shortfall, the report says, by streamlining or even eliminating administrative tasks, which can occupy up to 70% of a healthcare professional’s time.
The issues highlighted, among others, means that ‘AI is now ‘top-of-mind’ for healthcare decision makers, governments, investors and innovators and the EU itself,’ the report states.₁
To fully unlock the potential and capabilities of AI, there is an urgent need to attract and up-skill a generation of data-literate healthcare professionals.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is influencing larger trends in global sustainability. Many communities in developing nations do not have access to clean water, which impacts health and has economic and environmental implications.
AI has the capacity and ability to adapt and process large amounts of data in real time. This makes it an ideal tool for managing water resource, whereby utility managers can maximise current revenue, effectively forecasting and planning for the years ahead.
Currently, the development of AI is accelerating, but legal and ethical guidelines are yet to be implemented. In order to prepare the future generations of business leaders and national and international policy makers, the academic community will be playing a large role in this.
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Mosquitoes are a vector of the malarial parasite. Image: Pixabay
There were 219m cases of malaria in 2017, up 2m on the previous year. Increasingly, the disease is drug-resistant and prevention methods are difficult both in non-immune travelers and in areas where the disease is endemic. Moreover, most malaria drugs are designed to reduce symptoms after infection rather than prevent infection or transmission.
New compounds have been discovered with the potential to be novel antimalarial drugs. Image: Pixabay
A team of scientists are working to change that, aiming to treat the malaria parasite at an earlier stage – when it affects the human liver – rather than waiting until the parasite is in the blood. If successful, their work could have a significant impact on global health.
A shortage of donor organs for transplant surgery is fueling research to develop artificial livers and hearts, but how closely do they match up to the real thing?
Liver failure due to alcohol abuse, drug overdose and hepatitis is a growing problem. In 2016, 1220 Americans died waiting for a liver transplant, with the cost of treating cirrhosis – late stage liver scarring – is estimated at nearly $10bn/year.
‘In 2017, if you have liver failure, we don’t have a backup system,’ says Fontes. ‘But my group has a potential backup system. We are not ready for prime time yet, but we’ve some really good data.’
Liver failure can be hereditary or caused by excessive drinking. Image: Pixabay
Transplant surgeon Paulo Fontes at the University of Pittsburgh, US, regularly meets patients who ask what their options are aside from a liver transplant.
His group has attempted to build a new bioartificial liver, by seeding liver cells onto a liver scaffold. However, others working in this area have so far met with little success.
Now Fontes, working at the Starzl Transplantation Institute, has hit on a different strategy: to grow mini livers in living organisms. The work is in collaboration with Eric Lagasse, a stem cell biologist at the University of Pittsburgh, who showed lymph nodes are excellent ‘bioreactors’ for growing different types of cells, including liver cells.
The liver – made up of hepatocytes – has the capacity to regenerate after surgery. Image: Ed Uthman/Flickr
Lymph nodes filter damaged cells and foreign particles out of the body’s lymph system, which transports fluids around the body. When someone is ill, T cells from the immune system move to the lymph nodes to be cloned and released back to the bloodstream en masse to take on the microbe causing the illness.
For the past five years, Fontes and Legasse have been working with large animal models, infusing hepatocytes into the lymph nodes of pigs. ‘Within two months, it is amazing, but you have mini livers in the lymph nodes,’ he explains. ‘When you compare the mini liver with normal livers, they look very similar.’
Pigs are common animal models as they have similar organ systems to humans. Image: Pixabay
The mini livers weigh a few grams and would not offer a complete replacement for failed livers, but rather a supplement of liver tissue in patients with end stage liver disease who are too sick to undergo a transplant.
‘A lot of these patients have significant heart and lung problems, so would not sustain a full transplant,’ says Fontes. ‘The idea is to sustain their life by increasing their liver mass by creating new small ectopic livers within their lymph nodes.’
Compared with artificial livers, artificial heart technology is much further along the road to the clinic. To date, around 2000 artificial hearts have been implanted in patients, with demand driven similarly by an acute shortage of donors.
‘We wanted an artificial heart very similar to the natural human heart,’ explains Nicolas Cohrs at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. ‘Our hypothesis is that when you mimic the human heart in function and form you will have fewer side effects.’
Cohrs and his colleagues aim to print their artificial hearts so that they fit precisely into an individual patient. This is not yet close to clinic, but promises a tailored heart.
‘We take a CT scan of a patient, put it in a computer file and design an artificial heart around it, so it closely resembles the patient heart,’ says Cohrs. ‘We use these 3D printers and print a mould in ABS [acrylonitrile butadiene styrene], which is the plastic Lego is made of, fill it with silicone and then dissolve the mould with acetone to leave behind the silicone heart.’
Testing a soft artificial heart. Video: ETH Zurich
The plastic heart deflates and inflates with pressurised air. The first-generation device, made from silicone, has two chambers but survived for only 2000 beats. ‘This is only half an hour, so there is a lot of improvement needed,’ adds Cohrs.
A new prototype made from a more resistant [so far, undisclosed] polymer has managed more than a million beats, which is the equivalent of 10 days for a human heart. The goal is to develop a four-chamber heart that beats for 10 years, so a lot more work is still needed.
Tweaking the chemical structure of the antibiotic vancomycin may offer a new route to tackle the burgeoning problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, researchers in Australia have discovered.
Vancomycin has been used since the late 1950s to treat life-threatening infections caused by Gram-positive bacteria, including methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA). The antibiotic works by binding to a precursor of the cell wall component, peptidoglycan, Lipid II, thus inhibiting bacterial growth.
Lipid II is present in both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria. However, in Gram-negative bacteria it is protected by an outer membrane. In Gram-positive bacteria, Lipid II is embedded in the cell membrane but part of the molecule – a pentapeptide component – sticks out, which is what vancomycin binds to.
The researchers at the University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Biology (IMB), led by director of superbug solutions Matt Cooper, reasoned that if they could increase the ability of vancomycin to bind to the bacterial membrane, this would make it more difficult for bacteria to develop resistance to it.
‘Our strategy was to add components to vancomycin so that the new derivatives – which we call “vancapticins” – could target more widely the membrane surface,’ explains Mark Blaskovich, senior research chemist at IMB. ‘By providing two binding sites – the membrane surface and the membrane-embedded Lipid II - this allows binding to resistant strains in which the Lipid II has mutated to reduce interactions with vancomycin.’
In addition, the researchers say that the vancapticins have been designed to take advantage of compositional differences between mammalian and bacteria cell membranes – ie bacterial cells have a greater negative charge. The vancapticins have greater selectivity for bacterial cells over mammalian cells, potentially reducing off-target effects and giving a better safety profile. A series of structure–activity studies showed that some of the vancapticins were more than 100 times more active than vancomycin.
Hospital-Associated Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) Bacteria. Image: NIAID
This membrane-targeting strategy, the researchers say, has the potential to ‘revitalise’ antibiotics that have lost their effectiveness against recalcitrant bacteria as well as enhance the activity of other intravenous-administered drugs that target membrane associated receptors.
John Mann, emeritus professor of chemistry at Queen’s University Belfast, UK, comments: ‘Bacteria have developed numerous strategies to modify the binding, uptake and expulsion of antibiotics, and thus develop resistance. So, it is especially exciting to see the development of these new vancomycin derivatives that enhance the membrane binding properties of the antibiotic, thus enhancing its efficacy and beating the bacteria at their own game.’