How close is quantum computing to healthcare?


The world is on the cusp of a new era of computing with the advent of quantum technology, a much-vaunted but abstract branch of engineering with the potential to transform the healthcare industry that has never not yet fully exploited in real world applications.

Short-term uses range from streamlining clinical trials to optimizing back-end functions for payers and providers, and could begin to be used in practice within the next few years.

“I’m loath to put an exact timeline – is it a year? Is it two years, three years to go into production? But we’re seeing some real results today that say it’s going to be treatable in the short term,” Christopher Savoie, CEO of quantum software developer Zapata Computing, told Healthcare Dive.

Quantum computers, which are exponentially faster and more efficient than conventional computers, promise to reshape the entire industry, with proponents suggesting they could save the system hundreds of billions of dollars while improving patient care. patients.

Earlier this year, academic medical giant Cleveland Clinic entered into a decade-long partnership with IBM in which the computer giant is providing two quantum computers, engineers, and training for the student clinic’s new research center. genomics, emerging pathogens, viral diseases and public health threats. Until this agreement, IBM had only installed quantum systems at its own facilities.

The joint venture is still in the planning stages, but projects are expected to start this year, Lara Jehi, head of research information at the Cleveland Clinic, told Healthcare Dive.

For some industry observers, the partnership proves that established medical interests are serious about quantum’s short-term ability to solve currently intractable computer problems.

“I think we’re talking about single-digit years. We’re not talking about decades,” Jehi said. But “especially when it comes to healthcare, where nobody knows what the applications are, it’s all a learning exercise.”

In addition to this, you need to know more about it.Optimization of functions

Computers today use bits, a stream of pulses that exist as zero or one, to store data and solve problems. Quantum computers differ from traditional computers in that they use quantum bits called qubits – usually subatomic particles such as electrons or photons – which can exist as both zero, one or zero and one at the same time.

The ability to be in multiple states at the same time, called superposition, as well as a phenomenon called “entanglement,” in which two paired qubits exist in a single quantum state, allow quantum computers to perform many calculations at the same time. and grants them enormous computer processing power.

For this reason, quantum computers are adept at performing simulations, especially those requiring large combinations of different variables. This ability makes them widely applicable in healthcare and pharmaceutical spaces.

In the near future, for pharmaceuticals, quantum could be applied to improve patient selection and design in clinical trials, generate new molecules with a desired set of biological properties faster, better predict drug response, and get a drug to market faster, even for various diseases that cannot yet be treated, some experts say.

Clinical trials are a key area where quantum algorithms can have the greatest impact. Estimates vary, but it may take 10 years and Billions dollars to complete the process from drug discovery to commercialization.

Clinical trials are still conducted manually, and there isn’t much competition to make them smarter when it comes to calculating, despite the high price tag and slow schedule, experts say.

This is a key area where quantum could be harnessed earlier, as drugmakers have a lot of data from already completed trials. A handful of companies, including North Carolina-based Cloud Pharmaceuticals, California-based ApexQubit and XtalPi, are already using quantum technologies for drug discovery and development, many in partnership with quantum manufacturers like IBM and Google or pharmaceutical giants like GlaxoSmithKline or Pfizer.

Given the potential, McKinsey estimates global pharmaceutical R&D spending on quantum computing will reach billions by 2030.

“It’s the boring day-to-day tasks that will really have the greatest return on investment in the short term, simply because of the nature of the calculations. But it will arguably have a bigger economic impact,” Savoie said.

Likewise, quantum could optimize healthcare administration functions for payers and providers, in areas such as patient matching and scheduling, patient allocation to beds, reduction of diagnostic testing. unnecessary time spent on an MRI machine and imaging.

For example, adding quantum computing to a type of deep learning called generative adversarial networks, or GANs, can be used to populate sparse data in imaging for rare diseases, Savoie said.

Consider a situation where in order to train neural networks to identify a specific and rare form of lung cancer, researchers need 10,000 MRIs of the cancer, but they don’t have enough data. Using quantum GANs, researchers can further falsify additional analyzes, adding realistic synthetic examples to this dataset and resulting in a very precise algorithm to identify this rare cancer.

Quantum’s power also allows it to process imaging on a large scale, which requires significantly more processing power than traditional data sets. This ability could allow clinicians to analyze images, such as CT scans, more quickly and identify any abnormalities, resulting in faster diagnosis and improved patient care.

“Multifactor optimization problems – these are the types of things quantum will be good for,” said Matt Kinsella, managing director of Maverick, the VC arm of $ 8 billion hedge fund Maverick Capital that has invested in the technology. of quantum computing.

Look further

Eventually, some say quantum technology could be used to design a drug without having to test it on animals or patients, although developers are reluctant to put a timeline on such futuristic applications.

“It’s a little too early for us to delve into specific applications or verticals,” a representative of Google’s quantum research team told Healthcare Dive. “Over the next few years, the team will be really focused on building the first practical quantum computers.”

In 2019, Google’s computer, considered one of the most advanced in the world, used 53 qubits to complete a task in 200 seconds that researchers estimated that it would take more than 10,000 years for a conventional machine.

Even today’s fastest quantum computers don’t have more than 100 qubits, which (although extremely powerful) is still limited compared to what quantum machines will be capable of in the future, researchers say. .

“There will be some really interesting breakthroughs that will happen early in drug discovery, but that’s later, because of the number of quibits he’s going to use,” Savoie said. “The world changing stuff, the really cool stuff for a title, is in this early discovery zone.”

The number of qubits required to do something like “in silico” clinical trials, meaning that no human, animal, or even cell is required to test a therapy or drug – instead, a computer simulation individualized develops and evaluates it – is probably in the tens of thousands or even millions of qubits, experts say.

Investors are excited about the idea – a France-based startup in the space, Aqemia, has provided nearly $ 2 million in funding since its founding in 2019 – but it’s pretty remote and impossible with today’s technology, Kinsella said.

Creating fully simulated clinical trials would have major advantages over current “in vivo” trials in almost all aspects, including cost, time, accuracy, and human impact.

“It’s kind of a pie in the sky. But it will actually be real, eventually we can make some really good quantum chemistry that really helps in the early stages of drug development,” Savoie says. “But unfortunately the number of qubits for that one is a bit more advanced.”

Another more futuristic application would be to increase clinical decision making, an area where doctors are already quite wary of algorithms. But Quantum’s ability to process more factors faster means doctors could incorporate more variables to determine which therapy would best help a patient, including socio-economic, gender, and even financial data.

This ability to analyze accumulated medical data more quickly and identify correlations could allow physicians to make decisions on a more granular basis. However, quantum algorithms, if used today, would still face the problems encountered by existing algorithms, including a preponderance of unreliable clinical data sets.

“I think it will happen, but I don’t see it happening now,” said Jehi of the Cleveland Clinic. “The accuracy of computer models based on readily available clinical data has not been that great.”

But despite the futuristic nature of quantum computing, experts expect the technology to begin to be used in real-world environments over the next several years, leading to major medical and financial benefits. And even leaders in the field can’t say for sure what quantum might make possible beyond that.

“Probably what excites me the most about quantum is – it’s a general statement – but we don’t even know what’s going to be possible and that’s what’s most exciting,” Kinsella said. “It’s faster on the horizon than you might think.”


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