AI finding drugs, and the latest telescopes

What do two experts think the future holds for their fields?
09 March 2021

Interview with 

Bahijja Raimi-Abraham, King's College London, John Zarnecki, Open University,


A large astronomical telescope against a dark starry sky.


Looking forward to the year ahead, which will hopefull be better than the one before. Adam Murphy asked pharmacist Bahijja Raimi-Abraham, and space scientist John Zarnecki, what the future might hold for their respective fields...

Bahijja - Well, we know that 2020 has actually been a year that we saw big advances and advancements in technology. And over the last few years there's been growing interest in the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning in drug discovery and drug development. And I really see this expanding even more. There's already one big company that is focused on drug discovery using artificial intelligence and there are more that are popping up. And I really feel that this is something that we're going to see more of. Having artificial intelligence machine learning to support drug discovery, so that's identification of new chemical entities, drug development, which is making the medicines, having the help of AI has been shown to speed things up to get improved accuracy of targets. And I just think there's going to be so much more that we'll see in that area. So really just technology and merging that in a synergistic way with health and drug development and medicine, I really think that's something we're going to see more of in not just this year, but in the future.

Adam - And John, we were talking earlier, you mentioned the James Webb telescope. So can you tell us a little bit about that? What's that hopefully going to do if it actually gets launched this year? I know there's been a chain of delays!

John - Well, the James Webb, I think is seen by most people as the successor to the Hubble space telescope. It's different in many respects, partly of course, because Hubble was launched in 1990. So it really, really is old technology. James Webb is very different. But one of the main differences is that it's going to be looking in the infrared part of the spectrum as opposed to the visible and the ultra violet as with Hubble. And this means that it's going to be able to look, in particular, in some regions of our galaxy and the universe that are sort of obscured by dust, for example. And we're going to be able to peer into the cool universe, the colder regions, the regions where stars are forming, for example, that are completely or pretty much obscured to the Hubble. So that's very exciting, and it's an enormous telescope. I can't remember the aperture, but several times bigger than Hubble and it's, in fact, much too big to fit under the fairings, under the nose cone of the launch vehicle. So it has to be sort of deployed like the petals of a flower once it's in orbit and that's going to be pretty scary.

Adam - Do you think it has the potential to be the same kind of paradigm shift the Hubble was?

John - Yes, absolutely. And one area where it could make a real impact is in the study of exoplanets. So of course that is something that the discovery of the first exoplanets actually happened after Hubble was launched. We'd never heard of real exoplanets when Hubble was launched. And it will have the capability in particular to look at the atmospheres of some of the exoplanets that we've already discovered. We know of about 5,000 I think already. But we now are just really on the verge of being able to look at the atmospheres of some of these exoplanets and looking at the constituents, some of the gases that make up the atmosphere. And there's just the possibility that one could see, and I realise I'm sticking my neck out here, but you could see some indication of life - or at least biological activity - by looking at particular biosignatures in the atmosphere of these exoplanets. So that's, I think, one of the many areas where JWST could be incredibly exciting.



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