How can quantum computing help cure cancer?

“Nature isn’t classical, dammit, and if you want to make a simulation of nature, you’d better make it quantum mechanical.1” (Richard Feynman, Nobel prize-winning theoretical physicist)

Pharma companies have long been looking for ways to speed up the discovery and development of new drugs, while lowering error rates and reducing the cost of the whole process. 

Quantum computing could be the solution they’ve been dreaming of, with quantum computing stocks reflecting the potential. 

Drug discovery poses monumental challenges

Today, pharmaceutical companies use computers to understand and predict the behavior of molecules that could form a new drug, a process called computer-assisted drug discovery (CADD). It’s a far cry from drug development of even 100 years ago, which mostly came about through happy accident, but it still takes an average of 13-17 years to come up with new treatments, which is far too slow for today’s digital age2.

The most powerful supercomputers can only simulate simple molecules, and even so, companies don’t have enough time to simulate every molecule simple enough for a computer to handle, so potential treatments go undetected. Researchers are sometimes forced to go to trial with little knowledge about how new drugs will interact with proteins in the body, resulting in a high and costly failure rate3.

Even Google’s DeepMind, which brought a breakthrough in protein folding modeling, couldn’t resolve all its challenges, plus it took several weeks of compute time of over 120 high end computers for DeepMind to make that achievement, which isn’t practical for drug discovery4

Quantum can help overcome them

Quantum computing could change all of this. Thanks to qubits and a complex process called superpositioning, quantum computers are both more powerful and faster than traditional computers. This puts tasks that are currently unfeasible or impossible, within reach, while quantum’s greater computational efficiency could lower the money and time involved. 

“In future, we could be running algorithms and searches on quantum computers with the ability to review drugs at a molecular level with unimaginable speed and run drug trials with every possible permutation of compounds tested against cell models, all in a rapid timeframe,” says Nirosh Liyanawaduge, Chief Technology Officer at Mitrai. “This would revolutionise drug discovery, making radical new treatments for Cancer and Alzheimer’s, amongst others, a real possibility.” 5

Quantum computing is ideally suited to drug discovery, because the molecules used in drugs are themselves quantum systems. Richard Feynman, the Nobel prize-winning theoretical physicist, put it best when he said “Nature isn’t classical, dammit, and if you want to make a simulation of nature, you’d better make it quantum mechanical.”6

To make it clear how significant this is, consider that pharma companies spend 15% of their sales revenue on R&D for new treatments. Experts predict that today’s $200 billion market for protein-based drugs could grow by 50-100% in the medium term. 7

Quantum computing can speed up clinical trials

After drug discovery, pharma companies still need to run clinical trials to verify the impact of new drugs and check how the human body responds. It takes a long time to complete full trials, and even then, it’s hard to be sure of the long-term effects over a lifetime. 

Enlisting enough participants with the necessary conditions, and yet including enough diversity, can be a struggle, especially when treating rare disorders. Ethnic-based medicine hit the headlines recently, when it was found that pulse oximeters are inaccurate for people of color and so could have contributed to high COVID-19 fatality rates among those populations8, so companies will be eager to test new drugs on as broad a range of people as possible. 

Quantum computing can support a new type of testing called in-silico testing, where trials take place in an entirely virtual simulated environment. In silico testing makes it easy to include large trial sets, test drugs on diverse patients, and speed up the tests to cover even hundreds of years in just a few days. For example, InSilico Medicine developed a new drug candidate in 46 days using a simulated algorithm. It’s predicted that quantum computers could save thousands, if not millions, of years of drug testing and drug development.9

Quantum pharma is more than just a theory

Although quantum computing hasn’t yet reached the necessary maturity, experts agree that it won’t take long. McKinsey & Comany predicts that value creation for quantum computing in the pharmaceuticals industry will begin by 2030, and recommends that pharma companies already establish partnerships with pure-play quantum companies, hire employees with the necessary skills, and assess their quantum readiness now to lay the groundwork.10

Deloitte considers that drug discovery and protein structure prediction are use cases with near-term impact, with analysts concluding that “Molecular simulations (which could lead to drug design) and material science is one of the few areas where computational advantage for quantum is proven.11

Some companies aren’t waiting around. The Cleveland Clinic blazed a trail, signing a 10-year partnership with IBM to establish the Discovery Accelerator, where scientists will use cloud, AI, and quantum computing to advance discoveries in genomics, single cell transcriptomics, population health, clinical applications, and chemical and drug discovery. Matt Kull, Cleveland Clinic’s CIO says “We want to be at the forefront because we think this technology will change the way we conduct research around the world.”12 

Cloud Pharmaceuticals, ApexQubit, and XtalPi​ are already applying quantum computing to drug discovery and development. Some took McKinsey’s advice and formed partnerships with quantum computing companies like IBM or Google, while others focused on creating quantum capabilities and joined with GlaxoSmithKline or Pfizer to supplement the pharmaceutical expertise.13

Quantum pharma could boost quantum computing stocks

With quantum computing offering so many benefits for pharmaceutical companies, it wouldn’t be surprising for quantum computing stocks to feel the love too. McKinsey predicts that by 2030, global pharma spending on quantum for R&D will be in the billions14, adding yet another good reason for people to consider investing in quantum computing. 

For investors who want to be part of the disruptive force of the quantum computing sector, but are nervous about identifying the best quantum computing stock alone, a quantum ETF like Defiance’s QTUM offers a way to spread the investment across a broader number of promising stocks involved in quantum computing, cloud computing, and other transformative computing technologies. 

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1 “Quantum computing’s ‘Hello World’ moment” October 26, 2019 

2 “For Cleveland Clinic, Quantum Is ‘Too Compelling to Ignore’” October 29, 2021 

3 “Pharma’s digital Rx: Quantum computing in drug research and development” June 18, 2021 

4 “Pharma’s digital Rx: Quantum computing in drug research and development” June 18, 2021 

5 “How Quantum Computing Can Impact the Healthcare Industry” 

6 “Quantum computing’s ‘Hello World’ moment” October 26, 2019 

7 “Recalculating the future of drug development with quantum computing” October 23, 2020 

8 “Bias in medical devices may have led to avoidable UK Covid deaths, says Javid” November 21, 2021 

9 “The Healthy Side of Quantum Technology” July 26, 2021 

10  “Pharma’s digital Rx: Quantum computing in drug research and development” June 18, 2021 

11 “Quantum Computing Hype or Reality?” July 2021 

12 “For Cleveland Clinic, Quantum Is ‘Too Compelling to Ignore’” October 29, 2021 

13 “How close is quantum computing in healthcare?” July 19, 2021