Ami-Louise Cochrane, center, receives a flu vaccination at Flinders Medical Centre, in Adelaide, Australia, (File Photo).
FILE - Ami-Louise Cochrane, center, receives a flu vaccination at Flinders Medical Center, in Adelaide, Australia.

SYDNEY - Scientists in Australia say they have used artificial intelligence to develop a powerful new vaccine against the flu.   The team from Flinders University believe it is the first time a computer has used its own machine learning to design a new drug for use in people. 

The computer's name is Sam, or Search Algorithm for Ligands, and Australian researchers say its new flu drug is a "turbo-charged" version of existing treatments.  The key to the technology are adjuvants, which are substances that help existing therapies work better to prevent infection.

The artificial intelligence program was fed information on influenza vaccines that work as well as those that do not, and left to its own devices without any help from scientists at Flinders University.  They say it is a start of a "new era" in artificial intelligence research.

“We took existing drugs that we know work.  We took examples of drugs that do not work, or have failed and we essentially showed all of that to the A.I. program called Sam," explains Dr. Nikolai Petrovsky, from Flinders University in Adelaide. "[It] came up with its own suggestion of what might be an effective adjuvant, which we then took and tested, and, sure enough, it worked.”

A clinical trial will soon start on 240 volunteers in the United States.  It is sponsored by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

The World Health Organization has said the 2019 influenza season appeared to have started earlier than previous years in Australia, Chile, South Africa and New Zealand.  The disease kills many thousands of people around the world each year.

More than 115,000 influenza cases have been reported in Australia and authorities say 226 people have died so far this year.