'Turbocharged' Australian flu vaccine made by artificial intelligence to begin clinical trials

An Australian influenza vaccine believed to be the first in the world completely designed by artificial intelligence is about to start clinical trials.

A man is seen receiving a flu immunisation shot as part of a work-provided Flu vaccination initiative in Rhodes, New South Wales, Australia.

Researchers at South Australia's Flinders University have been working on the project for 20 years. Source: AAP

An influenza vaccine developed using artificial intelligence could provide stronger defence against the illness, Australian researchers have said.  

The flu vaccine is thought to be the first completely designed by an intelligent computer, according to researchers at South Australia's Flinders University.

Associate Professor Nikolai Petrovsky told SBS News the development is 20 years in the making and is aimed at making current vaccines more resistant.

"We definitely need better flu vaccines," he said.

"If the vaccine is the engine of the car, what we've developed is a turbocharger that can be bolted onto the vaccine to make it more effective."

Computer simulation of the drug in red designed by artificial intelligence binding to its human immune receptor.
Source: Dr Sakshi Piplani, Flinders University

The drug is about to begin a 12-month clinical trial in the United States.

The technology behind it includes substances which help enhance the body’s immune response.

"We believe this is the first time that a drug that wasn't invented by a human is going into a real human subject," Mr Petrovski said.

But the development comes in a climate where public faith towards immunisations is being challenged in some regions of the world, according to a major global study of these attitudes.

This is despite the World Health Organisation listing mistrust in vaccines as one of the top 10 threats to global health.

This year's intense flu season has brought increased warnings for people to get the flu jab.
Source: AAP

Associate Professor Petrovsky said the idea of a vaccine designed by artificial intelligence should not dissuade the public. 

"The world needs a better flu vaccine, the big question is how to achieve that," he said.

"The US government have been funding us for 15 years."

"The reason they support us, despite the fact we're based in Adelaide, is because they believe this is revolutionary technology."

An intense flu season this year in Australia has led to increased warnings for people to get vaccinated. 

The flu has killed 228 people and infected more than 100,000 across the country, according to data from Australian states and territories. 

That compared with 58,870 confirmed flu cases for 2018, based on figures from the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System (NNDSS). 

Associate Professor Petrovsky said the need to support developing stronger vaccines against the illness remains an urgent cause. 

"There is no question about the need for a better flu vaccine," he said.

"We've seen deaths across all the states in Australia from flu and that's only the tip of the iceberg." 

"It is such a big burden, in a bad flu year, the impact on the health system is enormous."

This year looks to see the biggest number of flu cases in decades.
Source: AAP

The global review of public attitudes by Wellcome Trust found that eight in 10 people believed that vaccines were safe in a study of 140,000 people across 140 countries. 

However, 7 per cent of respondents still believed that vaccines were not safe.

Associate Professor Petrovsky said hesitancy towards vaccinations is dangerous and urged people to be open to new developments in the area.

"We're not telling people not to have their flu shots, because [that] is still the best protection," said.

"But we can improve the flu shots and that is really our mission - to make the vaccine more effective."

In the United States, Ethan Lindenberger has become a public face of the campaign supporting the importance of vaccinations. 

He gained fame after getting vaccinated against his anti-vaccination mother’s wishes.

"People like my mother believe vaccines cause autism, they cause brain damage that they aren't safe and effective,” he said.

"They're putting their kids in danger for reasons that are the same that we vaccinate. It's for the health and safety of their children."

Ethan Lindenberger, an 18-year-old who was vaccinated against his mother's wishes.
Source: AAP

The 18-year old said he views speaking out against this disinformation as a personal cause.

"I don’t want to be the poster child for this movement,” he said. 

“I want to be going to college. I want to be celebrating prom.”

"[But] leaders need to take a stand. Young people need to take a stand."

Associate Professor Petrovsky said more funding and support in an Australian context was still needed to improve the effectiveness of flu vaccines.

"Vaccines are tested exhaustively, so people should be very confident that the vaccines they are having are extremely safe."

Published 2 July 2019 at 6:05am