Pharmaceutical companies are making plans to leverage the emerging technology of quantum computing in hopes of accelerating the search for the next Alzheimer’s treatment.
Quantum computers are the computers of the future. They function fundamentally differently than the computers in widespread use today, using a completely different system of parsing data (qubits that can represent 1’s and 0’s simultaneously). Applying the principles of quantum physics, they can make calculations worlds faster and complete far more complex operations than existing technology. Pharmaceutical companies are excited about this: Drugmakers and computing experts agree this tech has the ability to disrupt the pharma industry — especially thanks to its ability to simulate molecules and their chemical behavior.
There is an especially pressing need for precision and efficiency in the drug development process for Alzheimer’s treatments, as drug companies have seen failure after failure in developing disease-modifying therapies for the disease which is projected to afflict 7.2 million older adults in the United States by 2025.
“For me, quantum computing is a little bit like magic,” said Martin Strahm, head of data science at Roche, the pharmaceutical company that announced a new partnership with Cambridge Quantum Computing. “It is unimaginable, and yet we can calculate it, and we can even build machines to do things that are unthinkable.”
Roche is one of several drug companies that plans to apply the powers of quantum computing to the search for Alzheimer’s treatments and other diseases. Strahm and his colleagues hope to use this ability to simulate molecules and their behavior to help better, faster and more accurately design experimental drugs.
The drawback, however is that in this early — and awe-inspiring — stage, quantum computing is still not quite ready for prime time — some say it will take five years, but others believe that 15 years may be a more realistic timeline. While quantum computers are powerful, experts say they remain prone to errors, limiting their practical value. Qubits are highly unstable and scaling quantum computers is a major challenge.
But, companies like Cambridge Quantum Computing customize algorithms that makes the best of today’s error-prone quantum computers. Drugmakers see the potential of quantum computing and they are eager to explore the technology. A number of drug companies in addition to Roche have set up quantum task forces, monitoring advances in the field and piloting projects. The Cleveland Clinic recently partnered with IBM to leverage its quantum computing technology. Biogen has also been exploring ways to incorporate quantum computing in drug development.
“We are scanning the horizon, waiting for the big wave, but we don’t know how big it is going to be, or when it will come,” Mariëlle van de Pol, head of Roche’s quantum task force, said of the technology. “But if you see how much tech companies are investing in this topic, and how quickly the whole landscape is evolving, you realize that it will come and it will be a game-changer.”