Is quantum computing pharma’s next big disruptor?

Allie Nawrat 24 November 2020 (Last Updated November 24th, 2020 09:57)

Quantum computing is the next frontier in the field of IT. One industry that is set to benefit significantly from the development of these impressive next-generation computers is pharma. Allie Nawrat talks to the Pistoia Alliance, QED-C and QuPharm about the opportunities quantum computing may provide to the pharma industry.

Is quantum computing pharma’s next big disruptor?
What are the ways that quantum computing can accelerate and support the pharma industry? Credit: Shutterstock.

The next cutting-edge innovation in computing and IT is venturing into the quantum realm. Quantum computers leverage the capabilities of quantum physics and mechanics to solve problems that classical computers would never be able to.

Rather than relying on bits that can either be on or off, as classical computers do, quantum computers make use of quantum bits, or qubits, to allow these devices to be on, off, or in so-called superposition where they are somewhere between the two.

These qubits drastically accelerate decision-making and calculations by allowing multiple options to be considered simultaneously, rather than having to consider and rule out each option in turn. Consequently, it is believed that quantum computers have the potential to solve problems in seconds that would take classical computers years, decades or centuries.

Since the 1990s, the huge processing and efficiency-saving potential of quantum computers has captured the imagination of tech giants – like Google and IBM – and small start-ups alike. Although small-scale quantum computers have been developed, there is dispute in the tech world about whether anyone has yet to reach ‘quantum supremacy’,  the stage at which a quantum computer can perform a task that no classical computer ever could. Google stated it had done so in a 2019 Nature article, but its rival IBM argued that Google’s efficiency claims were incorrect.

There has also been a focus on creating hybrid systems that leverage the benefits of quantum computing and integrate them into classical computers. This has created interest in other industries about the potential of quantum computing technology to enable them to solve previously intractable problems.

Pharma and quantum computers

One industry where quantum computers are often seen to have a lot of promise is pharma. In turn, pharma, and the wider life sciences industry, has demonstrated interest in exploring ways that quantum computers could drive efficiencies and optimise processes.

In a future-casting 2030 vision report, life sciences membership organisation Pistoia Alliance examined technological opportunities that might impact the pharma industry’s efficiency, and quantum computing was clearly identified. This led the organisation to set up a webinar and community of interest with its members and interested parties on this topic of interest, explains Pistoia Alliance operations team member John Wise, co-author of the 2030 vision report.

To support this initiative, Wise explains, Pistoia teamed up with Quantum Economic Development Consortium (QED-C), which was created in 2018 by the US Government as part of the National Quantum Initiative, and QuPharm, a pre-competitive collaboration of pharma companies interested in identifying use cases for quantum computing in the life science field.

During the webinar, the partners surveyed participants about the opportunities quantum computing hold for the life science industry. The poll found that 82% believed quantum computing would impact the industry in the next decade. Also, almost a third of respondents planned to start evaluating quantum computing in the next year; while 33% had quantum computing on their radar and were keen to evaluate in the near future.

QED-C deputy director Celia Merzbacher emphasises how exciting it is that the pharma industry, as an end user of quantum computing, has taken it upon itself to start exploring the promise of this technology even at such an early stage. Merzbacher believes that building relationships with pharma companies as end users will accelerate progress and encourage quantum computing companies to target their innovations to the needs of the pharma industry.

Wise echoes the benefit of early partnership between these two industries in terms of discussing the best use cases of quantum computing in the life science industries. “There is a need to discuss common problems and come up with common solutions” even at such an early stage, he says.

Wise believes that “quantum computing is going to change the paradigm and the improvement [in efficiencies] is going to be so remarkable, those companies that have access to this technology will clearly have an advantage compared to those without”.

Accelerating drug R&D

But how precisely could quantum computing transform and drive efficiencies for the pharma industry? The primary use is expected to involve accelerating the discovery, as well as research and development (R&D), of new drugs. Pistoia Alliance’s survey found that 82% of participants thought drug discovery and development would be the first to benefit from computing advancements.

Although computational tools are already widely used in drug discovery and R&D, quantum computers can employ improved and accelerated molecular comparison to make even better predictions about the potential of drugs to be safe and effective in diseases. They can also study larger and more complex systems than classical computers, thereby opening doors to pharma discoveries not possible without this technology.

Wise explains that, with quantum computing, “you have a better, more powerful tool in your toolbox to be able to understand physiological systems much more quickly and efficiently.”

One of QuPharm’s leaders Emir Roach agrees that “quantum simulations for the characterisation of molecular systems” is the most common use case being considered for quantum computing in drug R&D.

The ability to improve and accelerate drug discovery through quantum computing has the potential to drastically cut the often prohibitively high costs of bringing a drug to market, as well as reduce time to market. It is currently estimated to take an average of ten years and $2bn to discover, develop and commercialise a therapy.

Quantum computing in practice

The incredible opportunity quantum computing presents for pharma R&D is evident in this use being prioritised by multiple different quantum computing companies and projects that are not purely working on life science applications.

For instance, the UK Government recently announced it was investing £10m alongside industry to host the country’s first commercially available quantum computer in Abingdon, Oxfordshire.

The computer will be developed by US-based Rigetti, which will be supported by experts across the UK, and one of the use cases emphasised in a UK Government statement is to accelerate drug development.

In addition, pharma and drug R&D is a research focus of many major tech companies working on quantum computing, including Google and Honeywell.

There are also numerous start-ups entering this area; examples include Boston-based cancer and inflammation specialist Silicon Therapeutics and Singapore’s Entropica Labs, which focuses on omics research to support personalised medicine R&D.

Beyond R&D: improving logistics and supporting AI

The promise of quantum computing in life sciences does not end with drug R&D. Quantum computing might have early promise in “supply chain, manufacturing and financial risk optimisation problems – an area fairly disconnected from traditional R&D”, notes Roach.

Both Wise and Merzbacher agree about the potential of quantum computing to optimise supply chain logistics. Merzbacher also mentions quantum’s possible ability to improve the design of clinical trials.

In addition, Roach notes that quantum computing complements artificial intelligence and machine learning (ML) being leveraged by the pharma industry to drive efficiencies.

Quantum computing is “just one facet of the digital transformation that the pharma industry is going through”; it will not act to replace these other digital tools, notes Roach. In fact, the Pistoia Alliance’s 2030 vision report argues that quantum computing will actually revolutionise and drive advancements in ML and big data analysis.