Eric Luyer, Axendia

Quantum Computing Makes Inroads in Life Sciences

By Eric M. Luyer
Eric Luyer, Axendia

Quantum computing has spurred the development of new breakthroughs in life sciences from using machine learning methods to diagnose illnesses sooner to identifying materials to make more efficient devices.

Quantum computing enables industries to tackle problems they never would have attempted to solve with a classical computer. In 2016, IBM was the first company to put a quantum computer on the cloud, signalling a move from theoretical mathematics to real-world applications and discovering solutions.

A few years ago we developed a forecasting tool called a Life-Science Radar to identify key areas in the markets we serve and share our predictions of when these trends will become mainstream. One of the trends identified was Quantum Computing. In 2019 we placed this technology at the very outer section of our Life Sciences Radar diagram as we considered that it would take some years before this technology became “mainstream”.

However, technology developments have moved quickly over the last few years, benefiting from faster and more sophisticated Internet technology, faster computer systems and advanced Cloud technology. Now, using these new technologies as a basis, we see a growing need for better value and better analysis of various types of data: From business-data gathering and analytics to artificial intelligence, including machine learning and deep learning. Quantum computing makes that possible. As a result, life science companies are evaluating and adopting quantum computing.

A good example of this application is Boehringer Ingelheim’s recently announced partnership with Google Quantum AI, which focuses on “research and implementing cutting-edge use cases for quantum computing in pharmaceutical research and development (R&D), including molecular dynamics simulations”. Boehringer Ingelheim is the first pharmaceutical company to join forces with Google in quantum computing.

“We are really excited about joining forces with Google, the leading tech company when it comes to quantum computing,” said Michael Schmelmer, member of the board of managing directors of Boehringer Ingelheim in a press release. “Quantum computing has the potential to significantly accelerate and enhance R&D processes in our industry. Quantum computing is still very much an emerging technology. However, we are convinced that this technology could help us to provide even more humans and animals with innovative and ground-breaking medicines in the future.”

It is the goal of Boehringer Ingelheim to take advantage of the partnership and new technology to spur innovation and provide a competitive edge in developing medical and therapeutic breakthroughs for diseases with unmet medical needs.

In the above referenced press release, Ryan Babbush, head of quantum algorithms at Google noted that “Extremely accurate modelling of molecular systems is widely anticipated as among the most natural and potentially transformative applications of quantum computing.”

Another major life sciences company, Merck, is using quantum computing technology from Honeywell. “Quantum Computing is poised to disrupt classical computing and enable a variety of unprecedented opportunities,” said Philipp Harbach, head of in-silico research at the chief digital organization of Merck, in a 2019 press release. “The applications touch upon many fields with direct relevance to Merck and to our customers, for example materials research, drug discovery, artificial intelligence, and e-commerce.”

In January 2021, Cambridge Quantum Computing (CQC) formed a partnership with Roche to design and implement algorithms for early-stage drug discovery and development, including for Alzheimer’s disease. In addition to Google, Honeywell and CQC, several major technology players are using quantum computing technology, including Microsoft, Intel, IBM and a growing number of vendors that develop solutions for specific applications.

What makes this technology different and valuable for the industry? Quantum computing differs from classical computing in three ways:

  • How information is represented: In classical computing, a computer runs on bits that have a value of either 0 or 1. Quantum bits or “qubits” are similar but they can also hold much more complex information, or even be negative values.
  • How information is processed: In classical computing, at the fundamental level, bits are processed sequentially, one step at a time. In quantum computation, qubits work together to find the optimal solution. This allows quantum computers to converge on the right answer to a problem very quickly.
  • How results are interpreted: In classical computing, only specifically defined results are available, based on the algorithm’s design. Quantum answers are probabilistic, with multiple possible answers considered, in a certain-given computation.

Innovative life science companies are leveraging the value from quantum technology to accelerate discovery, research and development of new therapies and target specific complex patient treatments. In addition, they are investigating the use of quantum computing to facilitate prediction and simulation of expected outcomes, which will help to achieve improved patient outcomes in a much shorter timeframe and more cost effectively.

Considering the early adoption of quantum computing by leading life science companies, we believe it has the potential to positively disrupt research and development. Therefore, we moved quantum computing closer to the horizon in the 2021 Life Sciences Radar and expect it to become widely adopted across life sciences in the next three years and become a mainstream technology in five years.

About The Author

Eric Luyer, Axendia