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Letter from the Editor | 275

From neural networks to artificial intelligence

In the early 1990s, researchers from São Paulo submitted research proposals to FAPESP on artificial neural networks, a relatively unknown field at the time, in which computer systems simulate the human central nervous system. The objective is to develop algorithms that recognize patterns, allowing the machine to “learn.”

Artificial intelligence (AI) first emerged in the 1940s, but as is often the case in science, the field was ahead of its time. The computers of the era were unable to handle the vast amount of data processed by AI systems. To overcome this obstacle, computer scientists turned to programming languages as a way of creating rules to solve given problems.

Today, this area of study is ubiquitous and has been used to create a diverse range of applications, such as software to help drivers avoid traffic, recommendation algorithms for video streaming services, and biometric readers on ATMs. No longer restricted to academia, where it remains a popular field of research, at least in part due to its multidisciplinary nature, AI now dominates business projects, often resulting in new products and industrial processes. It receives high levels of investment—including funding from FAPESP’s PIPE program since 1997.

With the help of PITE, another FAPESP program designed to foster innovation in partnership with the SUS (Brazil’s public healthcare system), the Butantan Institute was able to advance the development of a vaccine against dengue, a disease that affects 390 million people per year worldwide, according to the WHO. A vaccine produced by French pharmaceutical company Sanofi Pasteur has been available since 2015, but it is only recommended for those who have previously contracted dengue fever and suffered adverse effects, and its effectiveness is low.

A few years ago, Butantan, various other research institutes, and several private companies began developing dengue vaccines using material provided by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). The Brazilian project has progressed fastest, attracting the attention of one of its competitors, US multinational MSD. The vaccine is now in the third and final phase of clinical trials, and results have been very promising, leading to a proposal from MSD to work in partnership with the São Paulo–based institution.

The American company agreed to pay Butantan an initial US$26 million for access to the information and processes from its clinical trials. If the product goes to market and proves successful, the payment could increase to as much as US$100 million over the following 24 months. MSD will own the foreign rights to the vaccine.

To date, R$224 million has been invested in the project, from sources such as the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) and the Brazilian Ministry of Health, as well as FAPESP. If successful, the institute, which already produces 100 million doses of nine different vaccines each year, will achieve international recognition for its research and development.


A traditional literary form known as cordel literature, published in leaflets since the end of the nineteenth century, has been recognized by IPHAN as a form of Brazilian Cultural Heritage. There is no subject that this eclectic poetry style shies away from—including science. In Trigésimo aniversário da conquista da lua (Thirtieth anniversary of the moon landing), poet Gonçalo Ferreira da Silva proclaims: “Man seeks to understand/ The origin and scale/ Of the universe and whether/ It is continuously expanding/ For it is our obligation/ to understand our home.”