How AI helped make mRNA vaccines
Story by Big Think
For most of history, artificial intelligence (AI) has been relegated almost entirely to the realm of science fiction. Then, in late 2022, it burst into reality — seemingly out of nowhere — with the popular launch of ChatGPT, the generative AI chatbot that solves tricky problems, designs rockets, has deep conversations with users, and even aces the Bar exam.
But the truth is that before ChatGPT nabbed the public’s attention, AI was already here, and it was doing more important things than writing essays for lazy college students. Case in point: It was key to saving the lives of tens of millions of people.
AI-designed mRNA vaccines
As Dave Johnson, chief data and AI officer at Moderna, told MIT Technology Review‘s In Machines We Trust podcast in 2022, AI was integral to creating the company’s highly effective mRNA vaccine against COVID. Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech’s mRNA vaccines collectively saved between 15 and 20 million lives, according to one estimate from 2022.
Johnson described how AI was hard at work at Moderna, well before COVID arose to infect billions. The pharmaceutical company focuses on finding mRNA therapies to fight off infectious disease, treat cancer, or thwart genetic illness, among other medical applications. Messenger RNA molecules are essentially molecular instructions for cells that tell them how to create specific proteins, which do everything from fighting infection, to catalyzing reactions, to relaying cellular messages.
Johnson and his team put AI and automated robots to work making lots of different mRNAs for scientists to experiment with. Moderna quickly went from making about 30 per month to more than one thousand. They then created AI algorithms to optimize mRNA to maximize protein production in the body — more bang for the biological buck.
For Johnson and his team’s next trick, they used AI to automate science, itself. Once Moderna’s scientists have an mRNA to experiment with, they do pre-clinical tests in the lab. They then pore over reams of data to see which mRNAs could progress to the next stage: animal trials. This process is long, repetitive, and soul-sucking — ill-suited to a creative scientist but great for a mindless AI algorithm. With scientists’ input, models were made to automate this tedious process.
“We don’t think about AI in the context of replacing humans,” says Dave Johnson, chief data and AI officer at Moderna. “We always think about it in terms of this human-machine collaboration, because they’re good at different things. Humans are really good at creativity and flexibility and insight, whereas machines are really good at precision and giving the exact same result every single time and doing it at scale and speed.”
All these AI systems were in put in place over the past decade. Then COVID showed up. So when the genome sequence of the coronavirus was made public in January 2020, Moderna was off to the races pumping out and testing mRNAs that would tell cells how to manufacture the coronavirus’s spike protein so that the body’s immune system would recognize and destroy it. Within 42 days, the company had an mRNA vaccine ready to be tested in humans. It eventually went into hundreds of millions of arms.
Biotech harnesses the power of AI
Moderna is now turning its attention to other ailments that could be solved with mRNA, and the company is continuing to lean on AI. Scientists are still coming to Johnson with automation requests, which he happily obliges.
“We don’t think about AI in the context of replacing humans,” he told the Me, Myself, and AI podcast. “We always think about it in terms of this human-machine collaboration, because they’re good at different things. Humans are really good at creativity and flexibility and insight, whereas machines are really good at precision and giving the exact same result every single time and doing it at scale and speed.”
Moderna, which was founded as a “digital biotech,” is undoubtedly the poster child of AI use in mRNA vaccines. Moderna recently signed a deal with IBM to use the company’s quantum computers as well as its proprietary generative AI, MoLFormer.
Moderna’s success is encouraging other companies to follow its example. In January, BioNTech, which partnered with Pfizer to make the other highly effective mRNA vaccine against COVID, acquired the company InstaDeep for $440 million to implement its machine learning AI across its mRNA medicine platform. And in May, Chinese technology giant Baidu announced an AI tool that designs super-optimized mRNA sequences in minutes. A nearly countless number of mRNA molecules can code for the same protein, but some are more stable and result in the production of more proteins. Baidu’s AI, called “LinearDesign,” finds these mRNAs. The company licensed the tool to French pharmaceutical company Sanofi.
Writing in the journal Accounts of Chemical Research in late 2021, Sebastian M. Castillo-Hair and Georg Seelig, computer engineers who focus on synthetic biology at the University of Washington, forecast that AI machine learning models will further accelerate the biotechnology research process, putting mRNA medicine into overdrive to the benefit of all.
Today’s podcast guest is Rosalind Picard, a researcher, inventor named on over 100 patents, entrepreneur, author, professor and engineer. When it comes to the science related to endowing computer software with emotional intelligence, she wrote the book. It’s published by MIT Press and called Affective Computing.
Dr. Picard is founder and director of the MIT Media Lab’s Affective Computing Research Group. Her research and engineering contributions have been recognized internationally. For example, she received the 2022 International Lombardy Prize for Computer Science Research, considered by many to be the Nobel prize in computer science.
Through her research and companies, Dr. Picard has developed wearable sensors, algorithms and systems for sensing, recognizing and responding to information about human emotion. Her products are focused on using fitness trackers to advance clinical quality treatments for a range of conditions.
Meanwhile, in just the past few years, numerous fitness tracking companies have released products with their own stress sensors and systems. You may have heard about Fitbit’s Stress Management Score, or Whoop’s Stress Monitor – these features and apps measure things like your heart rhythm and a certain type of invisible sweat to identify stress. They’re designed to raise awareness about forms of stress such as anxieties and anger, and suggest strategies like meditation to relax in real time when stress occurs.
But how well do these off-the-shelf gadgets work? There’s no one more knowledgeable and experienced than Rosalind Picard to explain the science behind these stress features, what they do exactly, how they might be able to help us, and their current shortcomings.
Dr. Picard is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, and a popular speaker who’s given over a hundred invited keynote talks and a TED talk with over 2 million views. She holds a Bachelors in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Tech, and Masters and Doctorate degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts with her husband, where they’ve raised three sons.
In our conversation, we discuss stress scores on fitness trackers to improve well-being. She describes the difference between commercial products that might help people become more mindful of their health and products that are FDA approved and really capable of advancing the science. We also talk about several fascinating findings and concepts discovered in Dr. Picard’s lab including the multiple arousal theory, a phenomenon you’ll want to hear about. And we explore the complexity of stress, one reason it’s so tough to measure. For example, many forms of stress are actually good for us. Can fitness trackers tell the difference between stress that’s healthy and unhealthy?
- Dr. Picard’s book, Affective Computing
- Dr. Picard’s bio
- Dr. Picard on Twitter
- Dr. Picard’s company, Empatica - https://www.empatica.com/ - The FDA-cleared Empatica Health Monitoring Platform provides accurate, continuous health insights for researchers and clinicians, collected in the real world
- Empatica Twitter
- Dr. Picard and her team have published hundreds of peer-reviewed articles across AI, Machine Learning, Affective Computing, Digital Health, and Human-computer interaction.
- Dr. Picard’s TED talk
If you look back on the last century of scientific achievements, you might notice that most of the scientists we celebrate are overwhelmingly white, while scientists of color take a backseat. Since the Nobel Prize was introduced in 1901, for example, no black scientists have landed this prestigious award.
The work of black women scientists has gone unrecognized in particular. Their work uncredited and often stolen, black women have nevertheless contributed to some of the most important advancements of the last 100 years, from the polio vaccine to GPS.
Here are five black women who have changed science forever.
Dr. May Edward Chinn
Dr. May Edward Chinn practicing medicine in Harlem
George B. Davis, PhD.
Chinn was born to poor parents in New York City just before the start of the 20th century. Although she showed great promise as a pianist, playing with the legendary musician Paul Robeson throughout the 1920s, she decided to study medicine instead. Chinn, like other black doctors of the time, were barred from studying or practicing in New York hospitals. So Chinn formed a private practice and made house calls, sometimes operating in patients’ living rooms, using an ironing board as a makeshift operating table.
Chinn worked among the city’s poor, and in doing this, started to notice her patients had late-stage cancers that often had gone undetected or untreated for years. To learn more about cancer and its prevention, Chinn begged information off white doctors who were willing to share with her, and even accompanied her patients to other clinic appointments in the city, claiming to be the family physician. Chinn took this information and integrated it into her own practice, creating guidelines for early cancer detection that were revolutionary at the time—for instance, checking patient health histories, checking family histories, performing routine pap smears, and screening patients for cancer even before they showed symptoms. For years, Chinn was the only black female doctor working in Harlem, and she continued to work closely with the poor and advocate for early cancer screenings until she retired at age 81.
Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy
Alice Ball was a chemist best known for her groundbreaking work on the development of the “Ball Method,” the first successful treatment for those suffering from leprosy during the early 20th century.
In 1916, while she was an undergraduate student at the University of Hawaii, Ball studied the effects of Chaulmoogra oil in treating leprosy. This oil was a well-established therapy in Asian countries, but it had such a foul taste and led to such unpleasant side effects that many patients refused to take it.
So Ball developed a method to isolate and extract the active compounds from Chaulmoogra oil to create an injectable medicine. This marked a significant breakthrough in leprosy treatment and became the standard of care for several decades afterward.
Unfortunately, Ball died before she could publish her results, and credit for this discovery was given to another scientist. One of her colleagues, however, was able to properly credit her in a publication in 1922.
onathan Newton/The Washington Post/Getty
The person who arguably contributed the most to scientific research in the last century, surprisingly, wasn’t even a scientist. Henrietta Lacks was a tobacco farmer and mother of five children who lived in Maryland during the 1940s. In 1951, Lacks visited Johns Hopkins Hospital where doctors found a cancerous tumor on her cervix. Before treating the tumor, the doctor who examined Lacks clipped two small samples of tissue from Lacks’ cervix without her knowledge or consent—something unthinkable today thanks to informed consent practices, but commonplace back then.
As Lacks underwent treatment for her cancer, her tissue samples made their way to the desk of George Otto Gey, a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins. He noticed that unlike the other cell cultures that came into his lab, Lacks’ cells grew and multiplied instead of dying out. Lacks’ cells were “immortal,” meaning that because of a genetic defect, they were able to reproduce indefinitely as long as certain conditions were kept stable inside the lab.
Gey started shipping Lacks’ cells to other researchers across the globe, and scientists were thrilled to have an unlimited amount of sturdy human cells with which to experiment. Long after Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, her cells continued to multiply and scientists continued to use them to develop cancer treatments, to learn more about HIV/AIDS, to pioneer fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization, and to develop the polio vaccine. To this day, Lacks’ cells have saved an estimated 10 million lives, and her family is beginning to get the compensation and recognition that Henrietta deserved.
Dr. Gladys West
Gladys West was a mathematician who helped invent something nearly everyone uses today. West started her career in the 1950s at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Virginia, and took data from satellites to create a mathematical model of the Earth’s shape and gravitational field. This important work would lay the groundwork for the technology that would later become the Global Positioning System, or GPS. West’s work was not widely recognized until she was honored by the US Air Force in 2018.
Dr. Kizzmekia "Kizzy" Corbett
At just 35 years old, immunologist Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett has already made history. A viral immunologist by training, Corbett studied coronaviruses at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and researched possible vaccines for coronaviruses such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).At the start of the COVID pandemic, Corbett and her team at the NIH partnered with pharmaceutical giant Moderna to develop an mRNA-based vaccine against the virus. Corbett’s previous work with mRNA and coronaviruses was vital in developing the vaccine, which became one of the first to be authorized for emergency use in the United States. The vaccine, along with others, is responsible for saving an estimated 14 million lives.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.