Microsoft have donated $5 million to the Institute for Protein Design at the University of Washington School of Medicine. The funding will be used to find new ways to apply artificial intelligence to protein design.

It’s hoped one result will be the faster creation of therapeutics and vaccines in the next pandemic.

Microsoft’s chief scientific officer, Eric Horvitz said; “My feeling has been for three decades that AI, including machine learning, is a sleeping giant in healthcare, both in the biosciences as well as in clinical medicine. I think we’re seeing the waking of that sleeping giant now.”

The collaboration is the latest stage in the evolution of UW Medicine’s Institute for Protein Design, which focuses on the creation of de novo proteins, made from scratch rather than derived from nature.

In announcing the gift, Microsoft and UW Medicine said they will start by identifying areas where neural networks and large-scale computing can be applied to protein design, and then collaborate on the development and manufacturing of new proteins for testing in the UW Medicine lab.

“If you take a protein that exists in nature, and you adapt it as a therapeutic, it’s never really perfect,” explained David Baker, director of the UW institute. “It didn’t evolve for that purpose. However if you can make things from scratch, then you really can put in all the properties you want, and leave out all the properties you don’t want. And then as machine learning gains steam in this area, and the capabilities grow and grow, I think it will be real game-changer.”

As an example of the potential, one of Baker’s colleagues at the Institute for Protein Design, Neil King, has already designed COVID-19 vaccine candidates that appear to be potentially more effective than those currently in use. Those vaccine candidates are currently undergoing clinical trials.

However, Baker added that the implications of this new era of AI and protein design go beyond vaccines and pandemics; “What I’d encourage everyone to think about is, now that we can design proteins with intent, what is possible? I think we’re really just limited by our imaginations.”