Just like in most fields, pharmaceuticals and drug discovery rely heavily on mathematical models and algorithms for research. Even though computers and research have advanced greatly in the past few decades, there are still areas and problems that are almost impossible to research and solve because of a lack of resources to do so.
For example, a researcher wanting to figure out the model of a structure of a protein cannot find the model without a template protein available. Being able to figure out these specific structures without the need for a template could pave the way for discovery of new drugs and even more.
This is where quantum computing comes in.
A Quick Breakdown of Quantum Computing
Computing systems all have the ability to store and manipulate information, from laptops to smartphones to calculators. While these systems are highly capable of many things, they are also simple and not powerful enough for complex calculations because of one basic rule.
Current computers can only manipulate single pieces of information, or bits, at the binary level one at a time. Either 0 or 1. Never both at once.
Quantum computers utilize the laws of quantum mechanics to actually manipulate the information using quantum bits, or qubits. This way, they can look at pieces of information all at once. 0 and 1 at the same time.
There are three basic properties of quantum mechanics: superposition, entanglement, and interference. These are used to manipulate the qubits.
Quantum superposition means that there is a combination of two things that we would normally define independently. For example, if you are playing the guitar and pluck two strings at once, you will hear the combination of both musical notes. Or the superposition of the musical notes.
So for quantum computing, the system would be in a state of both 0 and 1 at the same time because they are being “played” at the same time.
Quantum entanglement is when in a group of particles, the quantum state of a particle cannot be independently described from the other particles, or they become entangled with each other. While the individual quantum states cannot be described, the quantum state of the system as a whole can be described as a whole.
Quantum interference is when quantum states go through a phenomenon called phase. This is similar to wave interference. When two waves are in phase, their amplitudes add. But when the two waves are out of phase, their amplitudes cancel out, as seen in the diagram above.
Quantum Computation & Biology
Quantum computers use different algorithms for different types of computation, depending on what information needs to be yielded.
A common algorithm used is one to simulate a molecule. This is done by looking at molecular bond lengths and determining which one has the lowest energy state.
Next, the various aspects of quantum properties discussed in the previous section are analyzed. The process repeats for various interatomic spacings until the length with the lowest energy state is determined. This answer is called the equilibrium molecular configuration.
Quantum computers are also capable of studying electron behavior in a molecule. This is going to be super important for the advancement of drug discovery. A quantum computer would be able to predict how much a drug would work on a person before even testing the drug in human trials.
Protein folding, or the process of different combinations of amino acids organizing in a protein, happens constantly inside the cell every day. We use computers already to model protein folding, but we don’t know for certain everything that goes on in the process.
A future application of quantum computing is to be able to understand every aspect of protein folding and the structure of proteins in order to not only synthesize effective drugs but also cure diseases and fatal illnesses. Imagine being able to cure cancer just by running a simulation. These advancements could even make drugs cheaper to produce and purchase.
Accenture Labs & Biogen
Just like with most advancements in technology, this all starts with cooperation. Accenture Labs, an innovation disruptor, and Biogen, a biotechnology company, are working together to apply quantum computing to advance drug discovery. The companies are utilizing 1Qubit software to conduct experiments through new quantum hardware platforms and APIs. These advancements led to scientists actually being able to see the where, what, and why of molecular bonds.
They’re even finding ways to reduce processing costs by creating a library of results generated from the simulations, which also gives scientists an upper-hand on the drug discovery side.
Their ultimate goal is not even to disrupt the pharmaceutical industry, but to actually cure diseases:
To treat and ultimately cure neurological and neurodegenerative conditions.
It also seeks to apply its insights — in combination with cutting-edge technologies — to pursue treatments for rare and genetic disorders and explore entirely new ways to treat disease.
For more reading on Accenture & Biogen, please visit: https://www.accenture.com/us-en/insights/technology/quantum-computing
Future of Quantum Computers
There are so many big ideas and amazing, life-saving applications of quantum computing. But we are far from being able to actually implement this in the medical world.
Simply because we don’t have quantum computers large enough or powerful enough (still) to accomplish these tasks yet. Although quantum computers are far more advanced and powerful than your everyday laptop (about 100 million times faster), they2 are still too slow. The best quantum computers we have right now hold 50 qubits. And this number grows exponentially. With each additional qubit added, there is not only an increase in processing capacity (good), there is an increase in the unreliability of the information due to the interference (bad).
We still have a long road to go but it is going to be worth it if we are able to make valuable and important contributions to biology.