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Sunday, March 3, 2024
Dr. Brown: The battle to keep up with cancer and viruses
Dr. William Brown says artificial intelligence could be used to predict future variants of COVID-19. RICHARD HARLEY/MIDJOURNEY

Artificial intelligence seems to be taking over the world these days, what with repeated scary predictions in media, online and in science and medicine journals, where up to 10 per cent of the articles are about some facet of AI. 

What AI is really good at is handling and identifying patterns in mounds of data to identify, for example, a specific person and even something of their mood from their gestures, voice and face.

Or, in the world of biochemistry, AI is proving to be a powerful tool for identifying patterns in the sequence of hundreds, even thousands of amino acids in proteins and hence the shapes and functions of those proteins.

Given that those proteins were created from DNA and RNA blueprints, mutant versions of either can cause trouble by creating proteins better able to evade the body’s natural defences or drugs in the case of cancers, or bacterial and viral infections. 

The more malignant the cancer, the more mutations are likely to be found. Cancer cells, especially the really malignant ones, are prime examples of evolution on the fast track.

The more cell divisions, the more mutations, the greater the chance that one or more mutants will prove capable of overwhelming the body’s natural defences and any treatment. 

That’s why cancers such as glioblastoma multiforme, the most malignant of all brain tumours, is next to impossible, to treat. The five-year survival rate is about 10 per cent.

Genomic studies of this cancer exhibit different mutant versions of genes in different regions of the affected brain.

Mutations are a big problem with some bacterial infections that manage to mutate their way around antibiotics. And then there’s the COVID-19 virus, which has continued to mutate for years.

Most of COVID’s mutant versions cause no trouble, but some – as we witnessed during the pandemic – made some variants far more catchable, some more lethal and yet others found their way around protections offered by earlier vaccines.

And much to our chagrin, we’ve also learned that vaccine protection lasts only six months or so before boosters or updated shots are needed.

The problem is COVID, like other viral infections, has billions of human hosts (and nature’s other creatures) which can harbour the virus, leaving it free to mutate. 

Updating mRNA vaccines has helped, but those versions are already old news and don’t take account of potential future mutant threats.

That’s where AI comes in. Given enough data about evolutionary changes in the COVID genome and spike protein collected over the last four years from around the world, it should be possible for AI to predict possible new variants before they take place and identify which ones are most likely to cause significant clinical outbreaks. 

That would make it possible to design mRNA vaccines that are based not only on yesterday’s variants but also some future variants. That way, we stay ahead of the virus, instead of a step behind.

Fortunately, unlike other vaccines, mRNA vaccines such as Moderna and Pfizer are much easier to modify and produce quickly. 

The one major problem with current mRNA vaccines is that protection doesn’t last long.

This was apparent as early as 2021 in Israel, where the evidence suggested boosters were necessary in as little as six months following the first shot. The reluctance of so many to continue boosters compounds the problem. 

There is another solution: develop a universal vaccine based on all prior variants of SARS-CoV-2 and selected closely related viruses, including some in animals in close contact with humans.

The U.S. National Institutes of Health highly recommended this strategy twice before, as did the now-retired Dr. Anthony Fauci, but it died for lack of funding and in 2020, the pressing need to get the mRNA vaccines as early as possible in the pandemic. 

This year, a Nobel Prize was awarded to two scientists, Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, who overcame repeated funding and other obstacles to put mRNA technology on a solid foundation, without which we would not have had two highly effective mRNA vaccines within a year of the start of the pandemic.

But the work isn’t over to create more effective, longer-lasting versions of the mRNA vaccines for COVID – and maybe for the flu and even the common cold.

Remember to get your flu shot and updated COVID shot soon, before the Christmas rush. For those 60-plus, consider getting the respiratory syncytial virus shot, though for now that requires a script and a charge.

Dr. William Brown is a professor of neurology at McMaster University and co-founder of the InfoHealth series at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library.  

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