Quantum Computing in Pharma
The principles of quantum mechanics aim to describe the complex and often contradictory behavior of photons, electrons, and other subatomic particles. Now, these principles are also driving a revolution in computing, with the potential for disrupting industries ranging from cybersecurity to information technology. And while the world of quantum computing is still in its infancy, its arrays of supercooled chips called “qubits” promise to reshape the world of pharmaceutical research and accelerate the development of new, biologic-based therapeutics.
What is Quantum Computing?
Quantum computing is a radical step beyond its traditional counterpart-the kind of standard computing processes often referred to as “classical” computing. These classical computer systems are designed to execute logical operations on a binary basis. In that way, the objects of classical compute operations occupy a single, definite position relative to a physical state. These single-state operations, which include things like one-zero, up-down, and on-off, are called bits. In the classical environment, operations on these bits yield the expected computational outcomes.
Quantum computing applies quantum phenomena observed in the behavior of subatomic particles, such as superposition and entanglement, to execute its calculations. In the world of quantum computing, calculations are based not on an object’s defined state but on its probable state before it is measured. In that way, an object’s potential state has more possibilities than the binary one-zero.
A common “real world” example of this is when someone spins a coin in the air. While the coin spins, it has the potential to land face up, face down, or even on its edge. All those options are simultaneously available until the coin lands – a phenomenon called superposition. In quantum computing, superposition makes it possible to store more data and perform exponentially faster operations than any classical computer system can.
How does it work?
The basic unit of quantum computing is the quantum bit, or “qubit,” which can exist in multiple states at the same time until measured. Qubits can hold up to two bits’ worth of data, which can include not just a zero or a one. but any proportion of both zero and one simultaneously. That allows an array of qubits to represent all possible values at the same time so that a quantum computer can perform operations that are virtually impossible for classical computers to do within a practical time frame – a concept called “quantum supremacy.”
In 2019, Google’s experimental quantum computing array achieved quantum supremacy for the first time. This 54-qubit array took just 200 seconds to solve a theoretical problem that would take a classical system about 10,000 years to do. The larger the qubit array, the faster the operation, and companies including IBM and Microsoft are now developing arrays of 1,000 qubits or more.
Currently, IBM makes its 5-qubit array freely available to its Quantum Network of researchers, and Microsoft’s Azure Quantum platform is available by application to researchers in a variety of fields. But quantum computing experts point out that widespread use of quantum computing systems may be a decade or more away, largely because of the complexities of maintaining qubit arrays at supercold temperatures approaching absolute zero.
The development of functional and accessible quantum computing platforms can provide solutions to a variety of obstacles to advancement in all kinds of industries. That holds particular significance for the world of medicine and biopharma, where quantum computing could accelerate a key research process called molecular comparison and speed the production of biologic, or large molecule, based drugs.
Quantum Computing in Medicine and Biopharma
Molecular mechanics plays an important part in the drug development process, and it lies behind the development of some of today’s most innovative biotherapeutics. With the help of conventional computing technologies, researchers use strategies such as molecular modeling and comparison to define the targets of new drug activity, understand how these targets respond, and find pathways to trigger them for desired therapeutic outcomes.
Until relatively recently, many drugs have been “small molecule” or SMS drugs. These compounds have a low molecular weight and include such staples as penicillin and aspirin, along with many newer treatments for a wide range of diseases. Small molecule drugs are relatively easy to develop and manufacture using standard computing systems for analyzing and targeting molecular structures.
But many pharma professionals believe that the future of drug development belongs to biologics, a group of “large molecule” biopharmaceuticals that includes monoclonal antibodies, gene-based therapies, and other cellular products like insulin. Unlike small molecule pharmaceuticals, which are chemically synthesized, large molecule drugs are highly complex proteins that are virtually identical to proteins already found in the human body. These drugs can be thousands of times larger in molecular size than SMS drugs.
Biologics fill a range of needs that SMS drugs do not, and they offer new hope for treating diseases like cancer, autoimmune disorders, and viruses. Making these innovative therapies more widely available alongside SMS drugs could transform the delivery of healthcare across the spectrum of services. But biologics can be wildly expensive and slow to produce using current computing technologies, thanks to the challenges of running analyses on large molecules and their targets.
Quantum Computing Supports Biopharma Innovation
With quantum computing, pharmaceutical researchers could compare more large molecules faster and more efficiently than classical computing systems, and extract better insights into the behavior of molecular bonds. That could speed the development and delivery of complex, highly targeted biologics and make them available at lower costs. That’s a potentially lifesaving outcome for those suffering from many serious diseases that currently have limited treatment options.
That’s the goal of a number of established and startup companies that are experimenting with a variety of applications and cloud-based tools to find ways to apply quantum computing technologies in drug development. These include organizations like Biogen, a pharmaceutical research concern that recently partnered with IQBit, a quantum computing software company, and the consulting firm Accenture to create an experimental, quantum-based molecular comparison tool.
The “biologics revolution” is only one of many aspects of drug research and development that could benefit from quantum computing or a combination of both classical and quantum-based systems. But pharmaceutical representatives and computing experts say that a quantum transformation in pharmaceuticals and healthcare is still years away, and these technologies are better understood as ways to augment, not replace, traditional computing methods.
On average, it can take a decade or more to bring a new drug from discovery to distribution. The sophisticated algorithms of quantum computing could change all that–and bring tomorrow’s innovative new treatments to market faster and more efficiently than ever.