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IBM Watson sees early-stage 'breakthrough' in viral diseases

Produces macromolecule that could one day neutralise deadly infections

IBM Watson health unit 
Pictured: Leanne LeBlanc, IBM Watson project manager, views analytics of healthcare data at Watson headquarters in New York City

IBM Watson's cognitive computing abilities have produced a breakthrough in the fight to prevent deadly viral infections like Zika and Ebola, according to Singapore researchers.

A team at the Asian state's Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) used the Watson supercomputer to identifie a new macromolecule that could sidestep the normal mutations that affect viruses.

Viral infections are often unaffected by vaccines due to their natural ability to mutate rapidly and the ease with which they develop drug resistance. The subsequent human and economic toll of diseases like Zika, Ebola and dengue fever can be devastating.

Dr James Hedrick, lead researcher, advanced organic materials, IBM Research, said: "With the recent outbreak of viruses such as Zika and Ebola, achieving anti-viral breakthroughs becomes even more important.

"We are excited about the possibilities that this novel approach represents, and are looking to collaborate with universities and other organisations to identify new applications."

The news comes just one year after IBM set up a dedicated health unit to advance its data ambitions, forging initial deals with Apple and Johnson & Johnson, and this was followed by three major health deals - the largest of which was the $1bn acquisition of medical imaging firm merge healthcare.

The Singapore-IBM team's work exploits supramolecular chemistry - the study of large molecules designed with multiple features - to help combat viral infection and is believed to be a first of its kind in fighting viral diseases.

The new macromolecule is composed of several specialised components to create a powerful triple-play action that helps fight viral infection and replication while inhibiting drug resistance.

In early testing, the IBN team said they had seen no resistance, adding that - by targeting both viral proteins and host-virus interactions - the antiviral macromolecule sidesteps the normal mutations that enable viruses to escape vaccines through the onset of resistance.

The short-term potential could be for applications such as an anti-viral wipe or detergent, which would require a small amount of the macromolecule dispersed in water to potentially neutralise an entire room infected with Ebola, for example.

In the longer term its potential applications could include the development of a new mode of vaccination that could help prevent a whole category of viral infections.

Dr Yi Yan Yang, the IBN's group leader, said: "Viral diseases continue to be one of the leading causes of morbidity and mortality. We have created an anti-viral macromolecule that can tackle wily viruses by blocking the virus from infecting the cells, regardless of mutations.

“It is not toxic to healthy cells and is safe for use. This promising research advance represents years of hard work and collaboration with a global community of researchers."

The partners said that as the macromolecule moves towards clinical trials they may find that IBM Watson's supercomputer can draw connections between disparate data sets to speed new insights.

The full research paper, Cooperative Orthogonal Macromolecular Assemblies with Broad Spectrum Antiviral Activity, High Selectivity and Resistance Mitigation, was recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Macromolecules.

11th May 2016

From: Research

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