Computing to take a giant leap with quantum approaches

The technology is still new, but rapid increases in computing capacity offer hope that quantum computing can support research, population health, and drug and treatment discovery.

This article is part of the May 2023 COVERstory.

Healthcare is complex because human beings have genomic building blocks with countless variables and variations in their life experiences. There are endless approaches to caring for illnesses, and a multiplicity of ways to craft treatment plans and optimally effective drugs. 

For today’s current research and healthcare, classical computing can manage the processing demand. But that capacity is limited – and within the next few years, quantum computing will mature to the point that this emerging technology can assume the increasingly complex tasks that will exceed the capacity of classical computing. 

Even though research in quantum computing is in the early stages, leading healthcare systems will see this powerful computing technology solving complex medical problems. 

The basics, the advantages 

Quantum computing includes aspects of computer science, physics and mathematics that use quantum mechanics to solve complex problems.  The field includes hardware research and application development. 

Quantum computers can solve some problems faster than classical computers by taking advantage of quantum mechanical effects, offering the potential to calculate machine learning, data analysis, optimization and some types of simulation. 

Particularly in healthcare, many problems are beyond today’s computing capabilities, said Numan Laanait, senior lead and senior director of engineering at Carelon Digital Platforms, a U.S.-based company seeking to build a platform to deeply analyze various forms of medical data. Quantum computers have exponentially more computing capacity to do calculations. That computing capacity, as measured in qubits, is expected to reach enough maturity by 2025 to reliably handle massive computing projects.  

Laanait and co-presenter Frederick Floether, lead developer and CEO for Switzerland-based QuantumBasel, say they have identified more than 40 proof-of-concept studies involving quantum computing in genomics and clinical research, diagnostics, and treatments and interventions. 

Even though quantum computing is an emerging science, its use in analyzing datasets from electronic health records in a study last year found that “even with current quantum computers, it is possible to arrive at predictions that are at least as good as those obtained with classical computers.” 

Some research challenges far outstrip capabilities of classic computing, leaving quantum computing as the only hope to solve complex, yet essential research initiatives. Laanait and Flother noted the following as needing quantum computing capacity: 

  • • Fully calculating genetic risk scores for individuals, with classic computing unable to incorporate all genetic permutations to a high enough degree of predictive accuracy. 
  • • Drug discovery, because classical computing has been unable to explore all but a few molecules for pharmacological potential. 
  • • Clinical casual modeling, which would better demonstrate how a system would react to an intervention, especially in relation to other interventions in patient treatment, requiring the processing of high-dimensional and unstructured data, generalization to samples and temporal relationships. 

Early adopter 

Quantum computing is just emerging in healthcare with the announcement in March that the Cleveland Clinic installed the first quantum computer dedicated to healthcare research. The computer is the first managed on-site by IBM for the private sector in the U.S. 

The provider and IBM entered a Discovery Accelerator partnership that aims to use artificial intelligence and quantum computing to accelerate innovations and research into genomics, population health, clinical applications, and chemical and drug discovery. The accelerator, a joint Clinic-IBM center, will feature hybrid cloud data storage that enables faster storage and analysis of vast amounts of data. 

At the Clinic, quantum computing will be used for chemical simulations for finding new molecules for drug use, understanding complex systems and sequencing genes in cancer cells, clinic executives have said. 

Despite the promise, there’s much work to be done on quantum computing. Additionally, as quantum computers grow in capacity, they will put current cryptography practices at risk, because quantum computers will be able to break even the strongest encryption codes. 

Finally, they said tapping the potential of quantum computing in healthcare will require collaboration across the industry, particularly because the field is new and expertise is in limited supply. At this time, organizations interested in this level of computing power can start researching the technology, exploring the ecosystems and consortiums that are emerging and developing an approach that gradually ramps up its potential use. 

Return to the May 2023 COVERstory.


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