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WRAL TechWire: Durham quantum-computing startup launches drug discovery platform it says is much faster

WRAL Techwire

DURHAM – Polaris Quantum Biotech (PQB) is coming out of stealth mode to launch a new drug discovery platform with UK-based Fujitsu that could help the global effort to quickly find a vaccine for coronavirus.

Calling it “ground-breaking,” Polaris says the platform is a combination of quantum-inspired technology, machine learning, hybrid quantum mechanics and molecular mechanics simulations (QM/MM).

The result, its co-founder Dr. Shahar Keinan says, is a new solution that enables significantly faster and cost-effective discovery of de novo lead molecules (repeat identification) that are used for the development of new drugs.

For many diseases the right drug still hasn’t been found, she added, and outbreaks such as the coronavirus are only highlighting the necessity for faster processes to find a cure in our world of global interconnections.

“We identified quantum computing as a technology at an inflection point that can dramatically reduce the cost and time it takes to develop new drugs,” said Keinan,  who once served as a post-doctoral fellow at Duke University and also co-founded Cloud Pharmaceuticals, also based in Durham, where she acted as chief scientific officer.

“We are actively tracking scientific developments with COVID-19 and are pursuing avenues to add our technology to the world-wide efforts to create small molecule drugs to combat this pandemic.”

The new platform will be able to produce up to 100 drug blueprints per year, the company says, compressing the lead time for preclinical drug candidates “from five years to four months,” enabling real time adaptability to the precision medicine market.

“The industry is therefore in profound need of innovation to speed up the drug discovery process,” Keinan said. “It is the combination of quantum computing and personalized medicine that Polaris will deploy in combination with these new targets to transform health for all people.”

$250,000 IN EQUITY

For those not in the know, quantum computing is the area of study focused on developing computer technology based on the principles of quantum theory, which explains the nature and behavior of energy and matter on the quantum (atomic and subatomic) level.

Keinan co-founded the company with Bill Shipman, a former research scientist with The Scripps Research Institute,  while both were working at Cloud Pharmaceuticals. When Cloud Pharmaceuticals became a holding company, they licensed part of their technology for development.

The startup, which is currently located in Durham’s American Underground with three employees recently, raised around $250,000 in equity, according to a recent securities filing.

Keinan said the funds would be used towards developing a full platform prototype from two proof-of-concept studies, including its collaboration with Fujitsu.

Under the partnership, the platform will use Fujitsu’s quantum-inspired Digital Annealer to search an exponentially larger molecular space (over 1 billion molecules) compared to current market techniques for new lead molecules.

Polaris says this platform can operate 10,000 times faster than any alternative solutions in the market. The short list of lead molecules identified by the Digital Annealer is then connected to Polaris’ proprietary machine-learning algorithm and quantum mechanics and molecular mechanics simulations (QM/MM) to quickly assess whether the molecules possess all the characteristics that a drug requires.

The resulting high-quality lead molecules are taken to synthesis and testing and finally to licensed pharmaceutical partners for further development, the company said in its release.

The current pilot is identifying the right molecules necessary to develop a treatment for dengue fever, a wide-spread disease with 100 million infections and 22,000 deaths every year. There is still no treatment for dengue fever that is suitable for all people affected.

The new lead molecules for a dengue fever drug are estimated to be made available for partners to take through to the next stages in the drug discovery process by this May.

In parallel,Polaris and Fujitsu said they are exploring the many other disease targets with pharmaceutical partners.