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Israeli CEO seeks quantum of solace for women’s diseases

Shahar Keinan, a rare female CEO in the rarified world of quantum computing, says Polaris Quantum Biotech can speed up years-long search for new treatments

Illustration: Elior Doani
Illustration: Elior Doani

Severe stomach pain. Nausea. Fatigue. Infertility. These are just some of the symptoms suffered by millions of women with endometriosis — an incurable condition caused when tissue that lines the womb grows elsewhere in the abdomen.

Shahar Keinan, the Israeli CEO of Polaris Quantum Biotech, is teaming up with a fellow female CEO in the field to use super-fast quantum computers to find a cure for endometriosis, which doctors estimate affects about 10% of women globally.

“This will help bring drugs to the market quickly, especially in areas that have long been neglected,” says Keinan of her company’s new partnership with California-based Auransa Inc., which uses artificial intelligence to search for new treatments. “This is really solving an unmet need.”

The two companies will also work together to find treatments and cures for ovarian and breast cancer and polycystic ovary syndrome.

“I believe we will be able to combine our individual expertise in biology and chemistry, respectively, to generate quality solutions for these very hard to tackle or neglected diseases affecting women’s health,” says Pek Lum, CEO of Auransa.

Solutions for these diseases are just a fraction of what Polarisqb, a quantum computing startup based in North Carolina, is investigating in the rapidly expanding field of computational chemistry, where scientists use computer models instead of lab equipment to identify new compounds that can stop or prevent disease.

The technology, which dramatically speeds up drug development, is especially promising in fields that have been understudied – like women’s health – and for rare diseases, where drug companies often see little return on investment.

Polarisqb is currently raising an investment round. Individual investors can get more details and participate via OurCrowd.

Meanwhile, traditional lab-based methods for developing drugs are becoming more expensive. Each new drug costs about $1 billion on average to create, a price tag that includes the many failed attempts and trials, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. The costs are passed onto patients.

The quantum computing used by Polarisqb calculate up to 10,000 times faster than traditional computers, helping to make more medications available quicker and at lower prices, and cutting the average amount of time to bring a drug to market from 10 years to seven, Keinan says.

To test the concept, scientists at Polarisqb built on earlier lab research on Dengue fever carried out by Novartis, which had taken about four years to identify molecules that could stop the disease, which causes nausea, rash and body aches, and can be fatal in about 25% of cases. While there is a vaccine available for certain age groups it can only be safely given to those who have had the virus in the past. The virus still infects up to 400 million people around the world each year.

“We were able to use our platform and identify the same molecules, out of a library of billions, in less than a minute. We also use the system to identify novel molecules to overcome the problems with the old ones,” Keinan said. The company will now market those molecules to drug companies.

The same work can also be done with traditional computers, but “it’s a long and complicated operation,” Keinan says, and would not save significantly compared to lab research. “We were looking for something faster and more efficient so that we could scale it.”

Quantum computers enable the system to perform super-fast calculations to figure out which are the best molecules to use, quickly eliminating those that won’t work.

The platform works by scanning computer models of billions of different molecules. It identifies the molecules that could treat a specific disease by targeting and stopping the activity of a certain protein that alters the disease progression. In cancer, certain molecules could stop the replication of the cancer cells’ DNA. For viruses, certain molecules could stop the replication of RNA.

“Finding those molecules will translate into stopping the disease,” Keinan says, adding that these molecules then become the recipes or blueprints for medications.

“We are just trying to find the perfect molecule, or the key that will fit the exact keyhole in the protein,” she says.

Polarisqb used a Digital Annealer, a quantum-inspired technology developed by Fujitsu that is capable of performing parallel, real-time optimization calculations at a speed, precision and scale unmatched by classical computing. The collaboration with Fujitsu expands the number of molecules being searched from 10 million to trillions of molecules, thereby increasing the likelihood of finding novel, viable drug candidates.

“Polarisqb and Fujitsu’s new solution cuts drug discovery and lead optimization timelines from up to 48 months, down to just eight,” says Alex Brown, Drug Discovery Consultant at Fujitsu.

Traditionally, scientists have done this in labs, performing experiments to rule out molecules or find effective ones. But this process of trial and error is long and costly, and part of the reason that the average drug takes about a decade to develop.

“Either you do this slowly and in a very expensive way,” Keinan says. “Or you find a new technology; and that is what we are doing.”

For more information about investing in Polaris Quantum Biotech, click HERE.

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