Foundation behind Novo Nordisk to invest $200M in building quantum research ‘powerhouse’

The Danish foundation behind drugmaker Novo Nordisk will invest $200 million to build a quantum computer capable of solving some of the most challenging scientific problems in the development of new medicines and “green” technologies. 

The grant from the Novo Nordisk Foundation will fund a 12-year research collaboration with the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen that’s also expected to involve scientists from academic institutions in the U.S., Netherlands, Denmark and Canada. 

“We want to create an international powerhouse in quantum research, a field with tremendous potential,” said Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, CEO of the Novo Nordisk Foundation, in a Wednesday statement

The grant of $1.5 billion Danish kroner, or $200 million, is the second largest ever awarded by the Novo Nordisk Foundation, per a listing of previous grants maintained by the organization. 

The new program aims to construct a “fully functional, generally applicable” quantum computer for use in the life sciences — a goal the program’s leader, Niels Bohr Institute Professor Peter Krogstrup Jeppesen, likened in difficulty to the Apollo moon landing in the 1960s. 

Among the areas the program hopes its planned computer can aid in are the analysis of large genomic datasets and the interactions of the human microbiome, as well as in the discovery of new drug compounds. The foundation also noted the computer could help design more sustainable materials or uncover more efficient approaches to decarbonization. 

Researchers will work to develop both quantum hardware as well as algorithms that could be used by a quantum computer. Some of the funds from the foundation will go toward creating a new company, dubbed Quantum Foundry P/S, that will supply materials to program researchers. 

Quantum computers aren’t like traditional, transistor-based computers. Rather than rely on digital bits of information — a 0 or a 1 — quantum computers use “qubits,” which can be a 0, a 1 or a simultaneous combination of both states. The difference allows quantum computers to process significantly more information faster, putting previously difficult or impossible calculations within reach. 

According to a recent paper by the consultancy McKinsey, quantum computing could be particularly useful in drug development, especially for the identification of new disease targets and molecules that can usefully bind to them. 

“Exact methods are computationally intractable for standard computers, and approximate methods are often not sufficiently accurate when interactions on the atomic level are critical, as is the case for many compounds,” McKinsey researchers wrote in the June 2021 paper. 

“Theoretically, quantum computers have the capacity to efficiently simulate the complete problem, including interactions on the atomic level.” 

Drug researchers have already been working for years to apply advanced computing to drug discovery, an area that’s made notoriously difficult by biological complexity.

Recently, DeepMind, an artificial intelligence-focused subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet, has made significant strides in solving what’s known as the “protein folding” problem. Many drug targets are proteins and knowing their shape is critical to designing medicines that can bind to them. More broadly, protein structure can relate to function, giving researchers insight into the role certain proteins may play in biological processes.

In July, DeepMind announced that its AlphaFold system has predicted the structure of more than 200 million proteins, although the usefulness of those predictions has limits

Supercomputing is also what fuels research by companies like Relay Therapeutics, which designs its drugs based on simulations of protein motion rather than static snapshots of their structure.

The Novo Nordisk Foundation is betting a quantum computer could help researchers go even further. For example, the McKinsey researchers noted how AlphaFold’s advances in predicting protein folding doesn’t resolve difficulties in simulating the formation of protein complexes, or interactions between proteins and their related ligands. Quantum computing could also be a more efficient technology to run AI-based models on, they added, claiming AlphaFold uses 120 high-end computers over a period of several weeks. 

Reaching the program’s goals will take time, however. Researchers will spend the first seven years of the collaboration exploring three different quantum platforms to determine which is best. The remaining five years will be used to scale up the chosen platform.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, the Technical University of Denmark and the University of Toronto are expected to participate in the collaboration, the foundation said. 

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