British ‘Robot Scientist’ Eve Uses AI To Discover That A Toothpaste Ingredient Can Kill Malarial Parasites

Toothpastes have a compound called triclosan which prevents the growth of plaque bacteria.
Christof Koepsel / Getty Images

An artificially-intelligent robot developed at the University of Cambridge has impressed its makers by discovering that an ingredient found in most toothpaste could help fight drug-resistant malaria.

Every year, thousands of people across the world die from malaria, a disease passed to humans by mosquitos. Most of the deaths are reported from southeast Asia and Africa. According to the World Health Organization, about 212 million malaria cases were reported worldwide in 2015.

When mosquitoes infected with malaria parasite bite humans, they also transfer the disease-causing parasites into their bloodstreams. The parasites first multiply themselves in the liver of humans (liver stage) and then spread around the whole body through red blood cells (blood stage). Although there are medicines available on the market to cure the disease, parasites are becoming resistant to these medicines, thereby raising the threat of incurable malaria across the world.

Now, an AI-capable robot named Eve has discovered an ingredient in common toothpaste that is able to cure malaria. Eve was created by a joint team of researchers at the universities of Cambridge, Manchester, and Aberystwyth in Wales. The project was supervised by Professor Ross King from the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology, the University of Manchester. Eve’s biggest advantage is its ability to automate and accelerate the drug discovery process, which eventually makes this process more economical.

Eve can test a hypothesis and also explain the results obtained. It can screen nearly 10,000 compounds in a single day. It can learn from earlier screens and use its AI capabilities to select compounds with a high probability of being active against some specific drug targets.

According to researchers, Eve has discovered that triclosan compound can hinder the growth of a specific enzyme called DHFR. This enzyme is found in malarial parasites that have developed resistance to a currently-used anti-malarial drug, pyrimethamine. Triclosan is an antibacterial agent and is often added in toothpaste to prevent the growth of plaque bacteria. The current study also suggested that triclosan will work on parasites in the liver as well as in the blood and will hinder their growth. Researchers now hope to develop a new drug using triclosan that would be effective in the treatment of malaria.

The detailed findings of the study were published in the journal Scientific Reports.