MDI Biological Laboratory

MDI Bio Lab and Partners Explore AI Adoption in Maine

  • February 16, 2023

A survey published in January by Northeastern University’s Roux Institute and its Institute for Experiential Learning took a comprehensive look at the use of Artificial Intelligence in this state, covering sectors from forestry to financial services, marine monitoring, manufacturing… and biomedical science. 

The 64-page report and an associated conference in Portland highlighted AI-assisted work at the MDI Bio Lab and partnerships among allied organizations, including Northeastern, which recently established the Roux Institute in Portland. The MDI Bio Lab is collaborating closely with the Roux on education and research initiatives.

The new report taps Laboratory President Hermann Haller, M.D., for his insights on the use of AI algorithms to assist comparative biologists in their increasingly data-rich investigations of the basic mechanics of cellular and gene-level functionality.

As the report notes, Haller has been working with Samuel Beck, Ph.D., a former MDI Bio Lab faculty member who is now an associate professor at the Boston University School of Medicine’s Dermatology/Center for Aging Research and Skincare; their research aims to describe processes that underlie the hallmarks of aging, and map out potential pathways to slow or reverse age-related degeneration.

Using animal models for human physiology, Haller and Beck sought to link degeneration with specific areas of the genome, with AI speeding the search for early breakthroughs.

“When you age your genes become more unstable and you produce proteins that are altered and inflammatory,” Haller told Anna Fiorentino, the report’s author. “We needed supercomputers to analyze that. Without AI, it’s too complex; there’s just too many data points.”

And the MDI Bio Lab’s new division, MDI Bioscience, is investigating the use of AI to analyze promising compounds in models such as zebrafish and organoids – lab-grown organ tissue – to create new tools for personalized medicine.

To get there, MDI Bioscience is leveraging the expertise of the MDI Bio Lab’s faculty (and partnering with other Maine-based institutions as well) on high-throughput applications related to development and testing in the early phases of drug discovery.

MDI Bioscience Director James Strickland attended the Roux conference in Portland, joined by Iain Drummond, the MDI Bio Lab’s Scientific Director and a leader in elevating the zebrafish’s utility for comparative biology. Both men were struck by AI’s potential as a catalyst for cross-pollination among scientific disciplines.

“We heard a great talk by Colby College Associate Professor Dale Kocevski on work he and his spouse Elizabeth McGrath did using AI to help NASA’s James Webb Telescope detect and identify astronomical features,” Strickland says.

“Iain and I just about fell out of our seats because, essentially, the program that they created could be useful for identifying morphological changes in a zebrafish… It’s very beneficial to get that broader view on what other people are doing. It leads you to more creative solutions around important problems.”

In his interview for the report, Dr. Haller also pointed to AI as a resource that will encourage new kinds of collaboration among physically disparate scientific enterprises in this rural state.

“AI is a huge opportunity for Maine because we are generating data from excellent research institutions. To translate this data you need AI, especially in a state like Maine where people are not centrally located,” Haller said. “It will allow us to form new coalitions that are far stronger than ever before.”