Start-up and university to explore quantum drug development for rare disease

Bristol-based quantum algorithms start-up Phasecraft and the University of Nottingham have been awarded funding by global research organisation Wellcome Leap for a project that aims to use quantum computing to discover potential treatments for the rare muscle-wasting disease Myotonic Dystrophy.

The University of Nottingham, with partners Phasecraft and QuEra Computing Inc. are one of only 12 successful teams worldwide to be selected for funding as part of the Wellcome Leap $50m support program Quantum that aims to accelerate applications of quantum computing to address pressing human health challenges.

The “Quantum computing for covalent inhibitors in drug discovery” project is led by Jonathan Hirst and Katie Inzani from the University of Nottingham and co-founder of Phasecraft, Ashley Montanaro. The team brings together expertise from human health sciences and computational chemistry, to quantum algorithm development and quantum hardware.

Quantum computers can solve problems that are not tractable using today’s ‘conventional’ computers. One of the most promising applications of near-term quantum computers is accurately modelling systems where quantum mechanics plays a key role, such as in materials science, chemistry and even drug discovery.

The discovery of new drugs has long been one of the most challenging tasks facing medical innovation. It has consistently pushed the capabilities of current modelling tools to the limit. The new project will demonstrate how this process can harness the combined power of quantum computing and classical simulation methods to tackle the crucial task of drug discovery for myotonic dystrophy.

Myotonic dystrophy is a genetic condition that causes progressive muscle weakness and wasting and often affects the electrical conduction system of the heart, breathing and swallowing muscles, bowels, lens of the eye and brain. It is the most frequent muscular dystrophy worldwide, with an estimated 6,500 people affected in the UK and around 3.6 million people globally. As an inherited disease, myotonic dystrophy symptoms usually become more severe with each generation, with onset typically occurring after the age of 40. No treatments currently exist for the condition.

Phasecraft will apply its research in quantum algorithms to developing algorithms that can harness the developments made in quantum computing to help further drug discovery for the condition. Since launching in 2019 as a spinout from UCL and the University of Bristol, the team has developed record-breaking algorithms with significantly superior computational efficiency compared to others in existence. It is currently focused on developing quantum algorithms to the point of practical quantum advantage – when quantum computers outperform classical computers for useful real-world applications, such as drug discovery.

Ashley Montanaro, co-founder and CEO of Phasecraft, says: “We’re working hard to get to the point where quantum computing can outperform classical computers for real, practical problems and drug discovery may be one of the areas where this technology could have a significant impact. Our quantum algorithms for simulating quantum systems have already shown remarkable speedups over previous work, and we’re excited to be applying these ideas to human health, in collaboration with an outstanding team and using a world-class quantum hardware platform.”