Dr. Ken Byler: Drug Discovery from the Jungle to the Quantum Computer

On the back porch of a botanist’s home in the mountains of Costa Rica in 1992, a group of chemists worked diligently, isolating and testing natural products from samples collected in the cloud rainforest, searching for potential cures for diseases. Amongst them was a young Ken Byler, a student who wanted to be a doctor as a child before discovering a passion for chemistry. It was from this passion that underlies medical discovery that he would find his way to POLARISqb, working to combine the power of chemistry and quantum computing to develop novel treatments for all diseases, for all people.  Back in Costa Rica, Ken and the scientists he worked  with built a database of botanical compounds that included potential cures for disease. However, the process of identifying the compounds was excruciatingly slow because the plants that make them are found only in dense rainforest and require extensive natural product synthesis and isolation. This experience led Ken to search for ways to speed up the process of getting promising drugs to the people who need them.


Ken’s determination to find novel treatments at a faster pace led him to complete a Ph.D.in Computational Chemistry at the Friedrich-Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, where he expanded his skill set to include all-atom simulations and machine learning, utilizing these methods to identify mechanisms of action that explain how the compounds modulate protein function to treat disease. At POLARISqb, Ken's work is being recognized by industry experts as he uses these techniques in conjunction with quantum computers to accelerate this process even more.  As Ken describes it, “The appeal of doing [drug discovery] in a quantum space is that you can search a tremendously huge chemical space, and all of the possible combinations of atoms, and I saw enormous potential in what searching that space could produce.” 


Because Tachyon runs on a quantum computer, the amount of data the system can handle is much greater than what a typical high-powered computer is able to process. As optimization emerges as one of the best early use cases for quantum computing, the promise of the POLARISqb system continues to expand. “We are fine tuning our process to the quantum computer, so that we are getting out structures that are optimal to the binding pocket.” Ken told us. “We have spent a lot of time building these massive libraries and now we know how to use our tools within the quantum environment.  Now we are getting the best of the best, which means several highly optimal solutions from the system, so we put a lot of work into very accurately defining the problem.” 


In Ken’s estimation, one of the great strengths of that process is that it eliminates much of the bias of chemists working on a particular target. “When chemists are told to design a library, they can bring with them too much bias. What we do is take a large set of fragments, describe their properties, and then let the Quantum computer optimize them to fit into the pocket, looking at a much larger array of potential fragments and proteins than traditional computing systems can handle.” This approach allows researchers to step back from their own biases from previous experiences with compounds and look at the interactions in a novel way, leading to discovering new medicines. 

At POLARISqb, Ken is able to affect change on a large scale by looking at new targets, molecules, and diseases that have been neglected. “Ultimately, I want to chip away at the diseases that make life miserable for people around the world” he says. “When I was younger, I thought I might like to be a doctor, but realized that in doing my research I could have a wide ranging impact that could affect millions of people. This is why I have always worked closely with the medical community, and want to feel a connection with the people that will benefit from our successes.” This desire lies at the heart of  POLARISqb‘s mission: to develop new computational methods to identify new treatments and cures for all people. By reaching populations who have been previously ignored by the medical community due to economics, scientific complexity, or issues affecting patient populations, POLARISqb is striving to change the way medical research is accomplished. With brilliant scientists like Dr. Byler leading our teams, we continue to pursue a wide range of potential targets that will improve the lives offor millions around the world.