Moderna enlists IBM for quantum computing, AI training

Moderna aims to take its mRNA research to the quantum realm of computing, with a little help from Big Blue. 

The biotech has signed on with IBM to explore the use of quantum computers in developing its future medicines, using systems that could make it easier to solve the tricky molecular-modeling problems that have, at times, been too complex for previous generations of hardware.

Moderna will start by participating in IBM’s enterprise accelerator program, which the tech giant has described as a place for “quantum curious” companies to invest in building those emerging skill sets. It includes access to the tech giant’s network of computing systems and training on particular use-cases for life sciences research.

“We are aiming for breakthrough advances with quantum computing, so we are investing now in building a quantum-ready workforce, to be fully prepared to harness the power of this technology,” Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said in a release.

The agreement also includes investments in generative artificial intelligence programs to help aid in the design of new mRNA-based treatments and vaccines.

Moderna and IBM researchers will tap into MoLFormer, an AI model designed to help predict the properties of a molecule. According to the companies, one goal is to use the program to help optimize the lipid nanoparticle structures that encase Moderna’s mRNA-based payloads as they are injected into the body. 

“Moderna will be able to take advantage of our multi-year research efforts in generative AI for therapeutics that can allow scientists to better understand how molecules behave and may facilitate creating entirely new ones,” said Darío Gil, director of IBM research. 

IBM previously looked to make a splash in AI-based drug design with its Watson platform before winding down those service offerings in 2019, despite once signing high-profile partnerships with Pfizer, Novartis and Illumina in cancer research as well as with Teva to explore drug repurposing.

More recently, the promises of quantum computing have attracted the likes of Novo Nordisk, Roche and Boehringer Ingelheim to partnerships with Google and others, as the field quickly becomes more science than science fiction.

While traditional computers have used a binary system of 1s and 0s to solve equations, quantum computers are capable of understanding information as 1, 0 or something in-between, representing the potential for an individual bit to be either at the same time. This may potentially lend itself well to modeling the interactions among drugs, enzymes, cells and proteins, which are constantly in flux.

After enjoying global success from its COVID-19 vaccine, Moderna has looked to take its mRNA based approach to influenza, respiratory syncytial virus, HIV and cancer. However, its flu shot has recently struggled to prove its worth, failing to show early benefits in a phase 3 trial.