UW Medicine, Microsoft seek fast future pandemic responses

The collaboration will apply machine learning to the design of new protein-based antivirals and vaccines.

Media Contact: Susan Gregg - 206.616.6730, sghanson@uw.edu

The Institute for Protein Design (IPD) at the University of Washington School of Medicine today announced a multiyear, $5 million gift from Microsoft to advance research on biotechnological tools that may be used against future pandemics. The funds, together with computing resources and expertise from Microsoft, will be leveraged to explore how artificial intelligence can best be applied to protein design. A key goal of this research is to speed the development of potent antivirals and experimental vaccines.

“We are at a turning point in biotechnology. After decades of foundational research, it is now possible to use computers to create new proteins with new biological functions such as shutting down a virus. With this generous gift, Microsoft will help us propel this exciting work into new frontiers,” said David Baker, director of the institute and a UW professor of biochemistry.

“We’re deeply inspired by the scientific advances emerging from the Institute for Protein Design,” said Eric Horvitz, chief scientific officer at Microsoft. “We share an innate curiosity to explore what’s possible and aspirations to stretch the limits of what we know—and what we can do. We look forward to collaborating with the IPD on harnessing advances in machine learning to take de novo protein design to the next level.”

Proteins are the foundation of living systems. They solve some of the most complex challenges on Earth, including capturing and storing solar energy in plants and powering the immune system of the human body. Yet because the molecular details of how proteins work have until recently remained a mystery, humans have only been able to harness the power of proteins by modifying ones we happen to find in nature. This is changing at the institute, where researchers are creating synthetic proteins to address 21st-century challenges in medicine, energy, and technology.

Since 2012, the IPD has developed new methods to create novel proteins. Researchers there have designed experimental cancer treatments, innovative vaccines, and new protein-based materials.  Their strategies for developing vaccines, antivirals and diagnostics were recently applied to the virus that causes COVID-19. IPD scientists have also shown that deep learning techniques can be used to accelerate protein design.

Researchers from the IPD and Microsoft will work together to apply the latest advances in artificial intelligence to the challenge of protein design. They will begin by pinpointing areas where neural networks and large-scale computing can best be applied, then work together to develop new functional proteins that will be manufactured and tested in the lab at UW Medicine. The integration of Microsoft’s large-scale computing expertise and the IPD’s laboratory capacities promises to accelerate cycles of discovery in this field.

This news release was written by Ian Haydon at the Institute for Protein Design.

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