APR 19, 2021 4:18 PM PDT

Using Artificial Intelligence to Understand the Language of Cancer and Alzheimer's Disease

WRITTEN BY: Ryan Vingum

Cancer and Alzheimer’s disease are life-changing, and there is still much we don’t understand about what causes them, how they progress, or how best to treat them. 

Researchers at St John's College, University of Cambridge, however, are studying whether artificial intelligence and algorithmic learning can help us predict the “language” of proteins, which can be an underlying cause of diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

"The human body is home to thousands and thousands of proteins and scientists don't yet know the function of many of them. We asked a neural network based language model to learn the language of proteins,” said Dr. Kadi Liis Saar, first author of the paper and a Research Fellow at St John's College.

Proteins are vital to many processes in the body. However, changes or alterations to a protein’s function can cause diseases, such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. For example, researchers in this study were examining a specific type of protein malfunction that can lead to the development of condensates, or proteins that can collect and merge together. Alzheimer’s, for example, occurs when proteins “clump” together and kill nerve cells. Using language-based modeling could be a way to learn more about the rules governing protein production and activity, what constitutes a protein “error” or malfunction, and how to easily spot these errors.

While the use of artificial technology is not new in cancer research, the technology developed by researchers at St. John’s University specifically uses a common type of machine learning we encounter in our daily life: algorithms. We often encounter algorithms in places like Google, for example, where they collect data about our behaviors. Algorithms use this data to make predictions about future behavior, which helps marketers develop more targeted ways to reach you as a consumer. The idea is that these same tools can predict information about proteins using existing data.

According to the study published in PNAS, researchers input decades of research on proteins and found that artificial intelligence could predict what scientists already knew about proteins.

“We found it [the machine] could learn, without being explicitly told, what scientists have already discovered about the language of proteins over decades of research...Then we were able ask it about the specific grammar that leads only some proteins to form condensates inside cells. It is a very challenging problem and unlocking it will help us learn the rules of the language of disease.” said Dr. Kadi Liss Saar. 

Ultimately, these research findings suggest new ways that technology like artificial intelligence can help change how scientists think about disease and treatment.

"Bringing machine-learning technology into research into neurodegenerative diseases and cancer is an absolute game-changer. Ultimately, the aim will be to use artificial intelligence to develop targeted drugs to dramatically ease symptoms or to prevent dementia happening at all," said Professor Tuomas Knowles, the study’s lead author. 

About the Author
  • Science writer and editor, with a focus on simplifying complex information about health, medicine, technology, and clinical drug development for a general audience.
You May Also Like
SEP 20, 2021
Genetics & Genomics
Clinical Trial of CRISPR-Based HIV Treatment Set to Begin
SEP 20, 2021
Clinical Trial of CRISPR-Based HIV Treatment Set to Begin
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a retrovirus, which is a type of virus that can write its genetic material into th ...
SEP 30, 2021
Clinical & Molecular DX
Stick-on Diagnostic Patch Inspired by Beetles
SEP 30, 2021
Stick-on Diagnostic Patch Inspired by Beetles
Schematic illustration of the adhesive patch with diving beetle–inspired suction chambers against rough and wet hu ...
SEP 27, 2021
Microbiology
Rift Valley Fever's Infectious Secret is Revealed
SEP 27, 2021
Rift Valley Fever's Infectious Secret is Revealed
Rift Valley fever virus is carried by mosquitoes, and when it's passed to livestock including cattle, goats, and sheep, ...
SEP 28, 2021
Drug Discovery & Development
The FDA approves drug to treat a bad cholesterol in children
SEP 28, 2021
The FDA approves drug to treat a bad cholesterol in children
Familial hypercholesterolemia (FH) is a genetic disorder that afflicts approximately 1 in 250 people. Interestingly, whi ...
SEP 29, 2021
Cell & Molecular Biology
Study Suggests Cell Reprogramming Can Repair Heart Attack Damage
SEP 29, 2021
Study Suggests Cell Reprogramming Can Repair Heart Attack Damage
Cells carry the genome in their nucleus, and the genes that are expressed give a cell its identity. Researchers have bee ...
OCT 03, 2021
Cell & Molecular Biology
A Tumor-Suppressor Gene Plays a Role in the Circadian Rhythm
OCT 03, 2021
A Tumor-Suppressor Gene Plays a Role in the Circadian Rhythm
Organisms follow the cycle of the day, even at the cellular level, creating an internal clock. Humans' biology will ...
Loading Comments...