Polaris Quantum Biotech is reinventing drug discovery, reducing the time it takes to find candidate molecules for drug development from the typical three years to just four months. As with other successful efforts to redesign established processes, Polaris is betting on scalability and automation. The startup, co-founded by Shahar Keinan and Bill Shipman, came out of stealth a year ago, revealing the first-ever drug discovery platform using a quantum computer, cost-efficiently scanning billions of molecules from a large chemical space.
Dr. Shahar Keinan, CEO, Polaris Quantum Biotech
2017 SCOTT WATT PHOTOGRAPHY
Having worked in the drug development industry for years, Polaris’ founders decided to try and address the two major challenges they identified: The technology used and the business model. “We wanted to solve both of these problems together,” says Polaris’ CEO, Shahar Keinan.
The technology-related part of their solution was to use quantum computing, rather than classical computers, to speed-up the process. In terms of the business model, in contrast to the research labs (or Contract Research Organizations) that provide molecular discovery as a service to large pharmaceutical companies, Polaris is licensing their discoveries. With this business model, says Keinan, you need a diverse portfolio in order to “diversify your risk.” Diversity here is defined as the target disease, the specific protein targeted, and even the delivery mechanism.
Based on industry benchmarks, out of 100 “assets” (i.e., drug blueprints, lead compounds), between 1 to 5 will be used in a drug that will be sold commercially. Between 75 to 80 may reach clinical testing but typically this number could be reduced to no more than 25 over subsequent testing phases. Polaris is paid at each stage in the drug’s journey to the market, and increasingly more as each hurdle is passed successfully.
The lead compounds Polaris develops target specific biological processes that are known to be the cause of a specific disease and are designed to get involved in the process in a way that arrests its further development or eliminates it altogether. “We take this big biological machine and put a wrench into it,” says Keinan. The trick is to find a molecule that will do exactly what it is expected to do but will not do other, not useful or potentially harmful, things to other biological processes in the human body.
Polaris is developing an ecosystem around its drug discovery platform, enlisting various hardware and software resources to assist it. Last year, it partnered with Fujitsu’s quantum-inspired Digital Annealer technology, initially targeting dengue fever, a mosquito-borne condition that is present in over 100 countries worldwide, killing as many as 22,000 people each year. Another quantum computing provider Polaris is working with is D-Wave Systems, accessing its quantum annealing technology through the AWS cloud service.
Yet another Polaris partnership was announced recently, collaborating with Auransa to discover treatments for neglected diseases disproportionately affecting women. An example is endometriosis, an incurable condition affecting millions of women caused when tissue that lines the womb grows elsewhere in the abdomen. Auransa is using AI to develop precision medicine solutions in areas of unmet medical needs, and in this partnership, Auransa finds the biological target and Polaris finds the arrow (the lead compound) that will hit the target’s bullseye.
Over the last decade, there has been a growing application of AI (or machine/deep learning) to drug discovery and pharmaceutical company executives expect it to be the emerging technology that will have the greatest impact on their industry in 2021. Last year, a survey of life science organizations found that 31% were set to begin quantum computing evaluation in 2020 and a further 39% were planning to evaluate it in 2021 or have quantum computing ‘on their radar.’ Polaris Quantum Biotech could well be at the center of a perfect storm that will accelerate the pace of drug discovery.