What is quantum computing in healthcare ?


Last September, Google achieved a major milestone in quantum computing by building a machine capable of completing a task in 200 seconds when it would normally take a classical supercomputer approximately 10 000 years to perform. It is certain that the field has attracted a great deal of interest, largely because big industrial players are launching their own teams and services. Companies including IBM, Google, Honeywell and start-ups like IonQ are opening up commercial access to their early quantum-computing devices. Large quantum-computing initiatives in the United States, Europe, China, Singapore and Russia are investing in qubit research so that by the end of 2020, several types of quantum computers will be available through cloud services hosted by companies like Amazon and Microsoft. 


How does quantum computing work ? 


Quantum physics describes the structure and the interactions that occur at the atomic level. In other words, it is the study of the laws that govern all microscopic particles like electrons, photons and atoms. 

Classical computers encode information in bits, each of which can be either a zero or a one. This paradigm underlies technology raging from everyday smartphones to the most powerful supercomputers that we know. Yet, with only 2 possible states for each bit, there are limits to how much data a given number of bits can handle, making certain types of calculations a real challenge. 

In contrast, quantum computers encode information in quantum bits, or qubits, each of which can be an arbitrary combination of both 0 and 1 simultaneously. As such, a single particle can store many pieces of information at a time. A quantum bit has therefore a more fluid, non binary identity, with some probability of being zero and some probability of being one. “In other words, its identity is on a spectrum” says Dr. Shohini Ghose, quantum physicist and Professor of Physics and Computer Science at Wilfrid Laurier University.

When it comes to the applications of such technology, Christopher Monroe, a physicist at the university of Maryland, fellow of the joint Quantum Institute and National academy of Sciences member says about quantum computers that “they promise to solve problems that are out of reach of conventional machines, and to speed up modelling of chemical reactions in batteries or drug design, or even simulations of information flow in black holes.”


How can quantum computing be applied to healthcare? 


Quantum computing in drug design 


Even with supercomputers, precisely describing and calculating all of the quantum properties of all the atoms in a molecule along with designing and analyzing molecules for drug development is a challenge. In fact, nature is made of particles whose mechanisms are described by quantum physics. Similarly, our brains and the drugs we are searching for are also based on quantum physics and can therefore be accurately simulated on quantum computers. Indeed, since quantum computers work using the same quantum properties as the molecules it is trying to simulate, drug design can be more precise and, in the future, lead to treatments for diseases that are still untreated today like Alzheimer or some types of cancer. As Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winner and quantum physics leader says: “Nature isn’t classical, dammit, and if you want to make a simulation of nature, you’d better make it quantum mechanical”. 


Quantum computing for personalized medicine 


In the future, clinicians will be able to incorporate a vast number of cross-functional data sets into their patient risk factor models, allowing them, for example, to determine the effect of pollution on a patient’s health history. Moreover, as quantum algorithms will start detecting patterns in a patient’s behavior, they will be able to produce targeted recommendations and perhaps. In the case of cancer patients, quantum computing, through its enhanced data processing abilities, could identify the appropriate chemotherapy protocol faster and with a higher level of customization.

When combined with artificial intelligence and digital twins, quantum computers will allow physicians to adapt their treatments to the exact specifications of a patient. Moreover, each therapeutic approach could first be precisely modeled and simulated on virtual twins before being administered to patients. Although this appears quite futurist at first glance, the basis for a wide access to quantum computing is already available and used today. 


Quantum computing for securing access to health data


Quantum computers are particularly good at encrypting information. As such, they represent a great opportunity to achieve safer and more secure health information systems. Indeed, with the growing number of health data breaches and the volume of medical records exposed each year, patients are concerned with the privacy of their personal data. It can be argued that some of the encryption and anonymization techniques used today to protect sensitive and identifiable health data are outdated and can be easily cracked. 

At first glance, quantum computing won’t help, since it has powerful capabilities to break current encryption methods. As an example, on most platforms used today, data is encrypted using a technique called RSA. This asymmetric cryptography algorithm developed in 1977 is widely used to exchange confidential data on the Internet. To decrypt the data it is necessary to find, for a given number, the prime numbers which constitute it. For example, if the number is 21, it can be broken down into 7 and 3. But the numbers used to encrypt data are much larger. If the given number is composed of 100 digits, finding the prime numbers that constitute it becomes very complicated for a classical computer but not for a quantum computer.


Although quantum computers promise to crack current encryption algorithms, they will also be able to create new ones. Indeed, these computers will be used to build channels of communication between entities that cannot be corrupted, guaranteeing the security of personal data flows. Quantum computers are not just a more powerful version of our current computers. They work with a completely different technology, based on a deeper scientific understanding of the quantum world. In the near future, they will unlock more knowledge about biology and life sciences, allowing researchers to understand the world in a more precise way, to simulate nature and molecular structures and discover better drugs. Quantum computers have the potential to impact so many aspects of a patient’s lives, from access to breakthrough personalized treatments to secure medical records.