Quantum Woo in Drug Development
Building predictive models to identify responders in a drug trial using a wealth of genomic, phenotypic, imaging and other data holds the potential to transform the effectiveness and efficiency of drug development. Choosing the right drug candidate with a machine learning algorithm that simulates a molecule within days could cut the cost and time of drug development in half.
To move closer to the future of speedy decisions and fast outcomes, we need to change the present of computing status-quo.
Imagine a patient encounter which looks like this…Mr Smith is at his annual follow-up for long term cancer screening. He just went to the imaging centre and meets with his physician. The quantum imaging algorithm automatically identified a 1/100th cm square cluster of cancer cells near the original surgery site and correlated the imaging-based finding with patient history and genomic data. He gets scheduled for a high precision radiation treatment the following week. A quantum computer is used to direct a radiation beam that destroys the cancer cells with extreme precision and spares all surrounding tissue. This rapid detection of a tiny cluster of cancer cells and their destruction is one of many potential advances in medicine that could occur pending the realization of quantum computing.
Imagine simulating a model of Penicillin, that contains 46 atoms. Today it would take a classical computer with some 10^86 bits more transistors than there are atoms in the observable universe, however a 286-qubit quantum computer could simulate such a molecule is already within the realm of possibility.
What is Quantum?
In classical computational models, microprocessors accept binary data as an input, processes it according to instructions stored in its memory and provides results as output. Transistors, semiconductor devices, that are the active components of integrated circuits, or “microchips,” act as little signal amplifiers that can be used like switches in circuits. Encoding information in a series of bits and performs operations on them using circuits called logic gates. The problem with classical computing is that some of the most sophisticated versions of some tasks require an enormous amount of operations to be completed. These are the kind of tasks that could take billions of years to complete even on the best computers. It is clear that, if we want to answer complex and multi-faceted problems, there is need for a shift in computing paradigm.
There are two characteristics that can increase how fast a computer can perform a calculation. The first, is to increase the number of transistors on a microprocessor. The second, is the nature of the calculation, efficient algorithms, along with developments of AI and Machine Learning, have allowed researchers to frame calculations in the most optimal way for speed and accuracy for best insights.
Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman was the first to suggest that quantum mechanics could be harnessed to make a new kind of computer.
“A quantum computer is a type of computer that uses quantum mechanics so that it can perform certain kinds of computation more efficiently than a regular computer can”.
Quantum Computing takes advantage of two aspects phenomenon not found in classical physics. Whereas regular computers process information in units called bits, quantum computers use quantum bits, or qubits. Qubits can represent both a 0 and 1 at the same time, a phenomenon known as superposition. So, two qubits can represent four numbers simultaneously, [00,01,10,11] three qubits can represent eight numbers, and so on.
In designing a standard computer, engineers spend a lot of time trying to make sure the status of each bit is independent from that of all the other bits. But in a quantum computer, each qubit influences the other qubits around it, working together to arrive at a solution, a process known as entanglement.
It is the combination of superposition and entanglement that give quantum computers the ability to process so much more information so much faster.
These two properties enable qubits to achieve an exponentially higher information density than classical computers. Once put into a delicate quantum state, a quantum computer can examine billions of possible answers simultaneously.
Revolutionizing Industry and Research
There are several areas in which quantum computing is expected to revolutionise business and scientific challenges. Some of the early adopters of the technology include players from the pharmaceutical, finance and computer science industries.
In Operational Logistics, quantum computing can begin to solve the kind of mathematical problems that classic computing cannot. Let’s say a company wants to ship new treatment orders using 10 trucks over three possible routes, there are 310 or 59,049 individual solutions to choose from. This is something a classical computer could solve with ease. If the same company wanted to ship 40 trucks over the same 3 routes, we now have 340 or approximately 12 Quintillion- here we are stretching the limit of classical computation, we have not yet considered other variables, such as weather, load weights, customs fares.
Drug Development is a complex process, taking up to 10 years alongside billions of dollars to discover a new drug and bring it to market. Improving the front-end of the process, to ensure that the best candidate molecules enter the clinic, stand to dramatically cut costs and time to market, repurpose pre-approved drugs more easily for new applications, and empower computational chemists to make new discoveries faster that could lead to cures for a range of diseases.
Quantum computing has the potential to change the very definition of molecular comparison by enabling pharmaceutical and material science companies to develop methods to analyse larger-scale molecules.
Today, companies can run hundreds of millions of comparisons on classical computers; however, they are limited only to molecules up to a certain size that a classical computer can compute.
Biogen, an early adopter of quantum technology, in 2017, announced a collaboration with Accenture and Canadian Software 1QBit to develop an app to bring quantum computing into the development of treatments for indications such as Mutiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease and Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Merck and Co recently announced a collaboration with the start-up HQS Quantum Solutions, Quantum Chemistry experts, for development of software on near-quantum computers to aid in candidate selection.
There are emerging players every day and we are taking the first steps towards true AI!
Where are we today?
Despite all the potential Quantum Computing has to offer there exists a level of caution. We certainly do not have enough real-world examples demonstrating quantum supremacy. A lot of the projects are at early exploratory phases. Secondly, each application will require a new way of thinking and novel algorithms which are specific to Quantum System and can bring out its powers. The last problem, which is probably the largest barrier to entry is the physical problem. In comparison with our conveniently sized laptops and smartphones, quantum computers are a throwback to the early 20th Century—occupying large rooms with racks of specialised equipment and huge refrigerators to super-cool the quantum chips to temperatures colder than deep space.
While these limitations might look scary, we just need to remember that a similar prediction of limited demand made in the early days of classical computing.
In 1943 Thomas Watson, then boss of IBM, is alleged to have said, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” He was out by a factor of perhaps a billion.