AI in the search for hybrid antibiotics

This text is part of the special issue of Relève en recherche

Finding new drugs to fight antibiotic resistance is the focus of research by a doctoral student in physics at Concordia University. Portrait of Vrinda Nair, who relies on artificial intelligence to make groundbreaking discoveries.

If she started her doctorate in January 2021, it was not until September of the same year that she was able to leave Bombay, India, to come and study face-to-face. The one who obtained a bachelor’s degree in technology and a master’s degree in biotechnology in her native country turned to physics to try to create new hybrid antibiotics.

Bacteria are increasingly resistant to antibiotics currently on the market, explains Mme Nair. “We have to find new ones. It is a global health threat for the future, ”she underlines. His work is also funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada as well as Canada Research Chairs and Concordia University.

Using deep learning models, the doctoral student is trying to determine which molecules could be used to develop new treatments. “The algorithm is essentially inspired by the way our brain thinks. I take millions of drug molecules from a database. I train my computers to see which of them have a similar property to antibiotics on the market,” she explains.

The researcher then hopes to be able to combine two molecules in a hybrid form in order to create an antibiotic that is more effective than those currently prescribed. “It is possible that certain drugs used to treat another disease may have a similar property to an already known antibiotic. We can then form a hybrid treatment and obtain a new, more powerful antibiotic”, illustrates Nair.

A balance between the arts and sciences

The one who initially conducted research on lung cancer was already interested in the design of new drugs. It was while attending a conference on antibiotics that she decided to find out more and direct her studies in this direction. His current project therefore combines physics and biology.

But Vrinda Nair is not content to mix disciplines and concepts only in her school life. The researcher took a break of a few years between her master’s degree and her doctorate to indulge in other artistic passions. “I wanted to write and paint again. It was during this period that I understood that I could combine arts and sciences,” she recalls. She has thus published two collections of poetry and a personal growth book.

The doctoral student believes that her art also helps her to better popularize her academic work with the general public. “Ten or 15 years ago, explaining my research was a problem. Now I know how to analyze and dissect a concept in a simple way so that everyone can understand”, she illustrates.

It’s a way for her to find harmony between her different fields of interest. “I am someone who thinks a lot”, says the one for whom doing several activities allows her to stop “thinking too much”. “I really see science and my other passions as part of a good work/life balance,” she adds.

Despite her busy schedule, Vrinda Nair also supports several causes including volunteering in different feminist and environmental organizations. She encourages, among other things, the presence of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics by doing mentorship at the New York Academy of Sciences. At Concordia University, she is involved as an “ambassador of sustainable development”, in addition to taking part in the initiative Zero Waste Concordia.

The fruit of his various works was also rewarded in 2015. That year, Mme Nair was awarded the Young Researcher prize for her bachelor’s thesis project on the manufacture of biodyes from natural materials. A concept that she developed entirely from the beginning on the ways of extracting a red color pigment, lycopene, present in particular in tomatoes and watermelons, to use it as a non-toxic coloring agent in bioplastics. This distinction has given him impetus for his current work. “When you start in research and you receive an award, you feel encouraged to continue and pursue other research. »

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AI in the search for hybrid antibiotics

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