The physics of atoms and the technology behind treating disease might sound like disparate fields. However, in the past few decades, advances in artificial intelligence, sensing, simulation and more have driven enormous impacts within the biotech industry.

Quantum computing provides an opportunity to extend these advancements with computational speedups and/or accuracy in each of those areas. Now is the time for enterprises, commercial organizations and research institutions to begin exploring how to use quantum to solve problems in their respective domains.

As a Partner in IBM’s Quantum practice, I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside Wade Davis, Vice President of Computational Science & Head of Digital for Research at Moderna, to drive quantum innovation in healthcare. Below, you’ll find some of the perspectives we share on the future in quantum compute in biotech.

What is quantum computing?

Quantum computing is a new kind of computer processing technology that relies on the science that governs the behavior of atoms to solve problems that are too complex or not practical for today’s fastest supercomputers. We don’t expect quantum to replace classical computing. Rather, quantum computers will serve as a highly specialized and complementary computing resource for running specific tasks.

A classical computer is how you’re reading this blog. These computers represent information in strings of zeros and ones and manipulate these strings by using a set of logical operations. The result is a computer that behaves deterministically—these operations have well-defined effects, and a sequence of operations resulting in a single outcome. Quantum computers, however, are probabilistic—the same sequence of operations can have different outcomes, allowing these computers to explore and calculate multiple scenarios simultaneously. But this alone does not explain the full power of quantum computing. Quantum mechanics offers us access to a tweaked and counterintuitive version of probability that allows us to run computations inaccessible to classical computers. 

Therefore, quantum computers enable us to evaluate new dimensions for existing problems and explore entirely new frontiers that are not accessible today. And they perform computations in a way that more closely mirrors nature itself.

As mentioned, we don’t expect quantum computers to replace classical computers. Each one has its strengths and weaknesses: while quantum will excel at running certain algorithms or simulating nature, classical will still take on much of the work. We anticipate a future wherein programs weave quantum and classical computation together, relying on each one where they’re more appropriate. Quantum will extend the power of classical. 

Unlocking new potential

A set of core enterprise applications has crystallized from an environment of rapidly maturing quantum hardware and software. What the following problems share are many variables, a structure that seems to map well to the rules of quantum mechanics, and difficulty solving them with today’s HPC resources. They broadly fall into three buckets:

  • Advanced mathematics and complex data structures. The multidimensional nature of quantum mechanics offers a new way to approach problems with many moving parts, enabling better analytic performance for computationally complex problems. Even with recent and transformative advancements in AI and generative AI, quantum compute promises the ability to identify and recognize patterns that are not detectable for classical-trained AI, especially where data is sparse and imbalanced. For biotech, this might be beneficial for combing through datasets to find trends that might identify and personalize interventions that target disease at the cellular level.
  • Search and optimization. Enterprises have a large appetite for tackling complex combinatorial and black-box problems to generate more robust insights for strategic planning and investments. Though further on the horizon, quantum systems are being intensely studied for their ability to consider a broad set of computations concurrently, by generating statistical distributions, unlocking a host of promising opportunities including the ability to rapidly identify protein folding structures and optimize sequencing to advance mRNA-based therapeutics.
  • Simulating nature. Quantum computers naturally re-create the behavior of atoms and even subatomic particles—making them valuable for simulating how matter interacts with its environment. This opens up new possibilities to design new drugs to fight emerging diseases within the biotech industry—and more broadly, to discover new materials that can enable carbon capture and optimize energy storage to help industries fight climate change.

At IBM, we recognize that our role is not only to provide world-leading hardware and software, but also to connect quantum experts with nonquantum domain experts across these areas to bring useful quantum computing sooner. To that end, we convened five working groups covering healthcare/life sciences, materials science, high-energy physics, optimization and sustainability. Each of these working groups gathers in person to generate ideas and foster collaborations—and then these collaborations work together to produce new research and domain-specific implementations of quantum algorithms.

As algorithm discovery and development matures and we expand our focus to real-world applications, commercial entities, too, are shifting from experimental proof-of-concepts toward utility-scale prototypes that will be integrated into their workflows. Over the next few years, enterprises across the world will be investing to upskill talent and prepare their organizations for the arrival of quantum computing.

Today, an organization’s quantum computing readiness score is most influenced by its operating model: if an organization invests in a team and a process to govern their quantum innovation, they are better positioned than peers that focus just on the technology without corresponding investment in their talent and innovation process.  IBM Institute for Business Value | Research Insights: Making Quantum Readiness Real

Among industries that are making the pivot to useful quantum computing, the biotech industry is moving rapidly to explore how quantum compute can help reduce the cost and speed up the time required to discover, create, and distribute therapeutic treatments that will improve the health, the well being and the quality of life for individuals suffering from chronic disease. According to BCG’s Quantum Computing Is Becoming Business Ready report: “eight of the top ten biopharma companies are piloting quantum computing, and five have partnered with quantum providers.”

Partnering with IBM

Recent advancements in quantum computing have opened new avenues for tackling complex combinatorial problems that are intractable for classical computers. Among these challenges, the prediction of mRNA secondary structure is a critical task in molecular biology, impacting our understanding of gene expression, regulation and the design of RNA-based therapeutics.

For example, Moderna has been pioneering the development of quantum for biotechnology. Emerging from the pandemic, Moderna established itself as a game-changing innovator in biotech when a decade of extensive R&D allowed them to use their technology platform to deliver a COVID-19 vaccine with record speed. 

Learn more: How Moderna uses lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) to deliver mRNA and help fight disease

Given the value of their platform approach, perhaps quantum might further push their ability to perform mRNA research, providing a host of novel mRNA vaccines more efficiently than ever before. This is where IBM can help. 

As an initial step, Moderna is working with IBM to benchmark the application of quantum computing against a classical CPlex protein analysis solver. They’re evaluating the performance of a quantum algorithm called CVaR VQE on randomly generated mRNA nucleotide sequences to accurately predict stable mRNA structures as compared to current state of the art. Their findings demonstrate the potential of quantum computing to provide insights into mRNA dynamics and offer a promising direction for advancing computational biology through quantum algorithms. As a next step, they hope to push quantum to sequence lengths beyond what CPLEX can handle.

This is just one of many collaborations that are transforming biotech processes with the help of quantum computation. Biotech enterprises are using IBM Quantum Systems to run their workloads on real utility-scale quantum hardware, while leveraging the IBM Quantum Network to share expertise across domains. And with our updated IBM Quantum Accelerator program, enterprises can now prepare their organizations with hands-on guidance to identify use cases, design workflows and develop utility-scale prototypes that use quantum computation for business impact. 

The time has never been better to begin your quantum journey—get started today.

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