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Untangling quantum computing for healthcare

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In October 2019, Google announced that its scientists had achieved quantum supremacy. The tech giant’s quantum computer had carried out a calculation that was beyond the capabilities of classical computing. Google estimated that the same calculation would take the best classical supercomputer 10,000 years to complete.

The announcement elevated quantum-powered healthcare from the realms of science fiction to a promising near-future. From diagnosis and treatment to supply chain logistics, the potential applications of the technology are clear. But the road ahead is much less certain.

Imran Haq is strategic lead in emerging technology and science at Pistoia Alliance. Its members work collaboratively to lower barriers to innovation in healthcare R&D. Pistoia Allance has more than 150 members, including 17 of the top 20 major pharma companies.

Imran Haq, Pistoia Alliance

“I’ve been looking at things that I think are going to have widespread impact across the whole of life sciences and trying to understand how transformational they might be, such as microbiome, graphene technology, drones and robotics,” Haq says.

“Some of these things maybe seem a bit ‘out there’ but could be really exciting if we could find a real use case. That’s where we are with quantum.”

Quantum computers are not just promising for healthcare because of their processing speeds but also the complexity of calculations they are capable of.

Classical computers are written in binary code: ones and zeros. But quantum computers are written in qubits, where a switch can be on, off or both same time, known as a superposition. This enables quantum computers to understand and interpret much more complex data.

Haq explains what this would mean for healthcare in practice.

“You can create ways of modelling phenomena or systems that have lots of ambiguity within them, which would overload a classical system. Instead of saying that it’s faster, it’s better at handling more complexity, it can look at different kinds of problems to classical computing.

“The question for healthcare is, how can we analyse patterns in clinical data sets using quantum computers and can we reveal some underlying things that will give us new drug targets or ways to treat diseases? What if we could generate or predict compounds and molecules that can better target proteins?”

Haq believes that quantum computing could offer a number of practical applications in healthcare, such as supply chain management.

The process of getting a drug from point A to point B requires many different partners across the world and many regions to travel through. Perhaps with quantum computing, pharmaceutical companies could make their supply chain faster, more robust and more efficient.

In silico clinical trials have also been touted as a natural fit for quantum computing. Pharmaceutical companies could test their candidates of virtual patients, meaning no risk to health, lower overheads and more scope to develop personalised medicine.

Haq can see the potential of using quantum computers in this way. But there would likely be limitations.

“Clinical trials are highly complex and with lots of individuals globally. Then there’s the question of having enough patients of a certain disease indication to test,” he says.

“If you were able to predict the response to a therapeutic using a system such as this or could have a smaller, in-person real-life trial afterwards? Yes, that would be huge application.

“But that’s hugely complex data interacting with each other. Is there enough data out there to inform something to be so predictive and is that the right base material to develop something that can predict the response to a new therapy? Maybe for some types of drugs, but not with others.”

There may also be some quantum processes in our own biology that healthcare and pharma could learn from.

In 1996, biophysicist Luca Turin introduced the quantum mechanical based theory of olfaction. Turin hypothesised that our sense of smell responds to the quantized vibrational energy of molecules rather than their shape as had previously been suggested.

“People think it’s a lock and key mechanism. But you can smell things that have different chains of hydrocarbons and smell the difference,” Haq says.

“So are there biological systems that could be applied to drug discovery that quantum computers could model?”

Quantum computing is one of Pistoia’s largest ‘Communities of Interest,’ with around 75 members attending its bi-monthly meetings. The group includes pharma, research institutes, startups and academics.

Haq has found that many large pharma members have an interest in the space but don’t yet fully understand it or how they could apply it. Half of the professional who responded to a recent survey said that their knowledge was at beginner level.

“And that’s obviously an adoption barrier. So we want to take all this thinking and knowledge and convert it into something and try to remove the barrier,” Haq says.

Haq is now in the process of bringing together different organisations to develop a use case document. The group wants to understand which applications would be most relevant, important and have the most impact to Pistoia’s members and patients.

Meanwhile, Haq believes that a parallel piece is needed to address how the industry would incorporate quantum into established processes. The Community of Interest should look at how the technology would work with existing programming environments and what standards would need to be established.

Quantum computing is, by its very nature, full of uncertainties and there’s still a way to go before the healthcare industry can fully capitalise on the technology. Pistoia’s mission is to untangle the ambitious ideas and work towards something tangible.

“We’re starting to talk about how we might educate the first generation of quantum professionals. We’ve been asked by some of the members how to bring in people with these kinds of skills, as well as how they can find out what’s happening with new innovations.” Haq says.

“Joining the Community of Interest will give you a chance to become part of these further projects and  even steer the direction of where we go in the future. Everyone’s really open to what we do next.”

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