Quantum computing, which promises to provide far greater calculation capacity than traditional computers, could help to solve highly complex problems in the health sector.
When people talk about the future of the health sector, we normally understand that to mean preventive medicine, tailored healthcare, automating certain surgical operations using robots, aggregating patient data to establish a more accurate health profile and – not least – all the new apps that allow us to track the state of our bodies on a daily basis.
In all this, however, we tend to overlook the power of computer calculation. Nevertheless, DNA sequencing came about in the wake of rapid increases in computing power in line with Moore’s Law. Similarly, the European Union-supported Human Brain Project relies on supercomputers capable of computing astronomical quantities of data. So the next revolution is likely to come from quantum computers, which hold out the promise of enormous benefits for the medical sector.
Optimising treatments through computing
With its extraordinary computing power, a quantum computer is potentially able to solve highly complex problems, in particular optimisation issues. In the field of healthcare, quantum computers will ‟make it easier to analyse genetic information and identify a person’s genetic heritage,” Murray Thom, Director of Professional Services at D-Wave, one of the first companies to develop commercial applications for quantum computers, explained to L’Atelier, adding: ‟Researchers will then be able to use this information to decide on treatment options.”
D-Wave has identified two areas for potential quantum computer applications in the healthcare sector: radiotherapy and protein folding
More comprehensive analysis will lead to more effective radiotherapy
Radiation therapy is the most widely-used form of treatment for cancers. Radiation beams are used to destroy cancerous cells or at least stop them multiplying. In practice, ‟when doctors use a linear particle accelerator, they have to decide on the best possible radiation dose, its level of intensity and the specific point at which the beams need to be targeted, while at the same time minimising the side-effects on the patient,” explained Murray Thom.
These calculations are currently made by a medical dosimetrist who uses advanced software to work out the right dosage. The software cannot however guarantee an optimal result there are too many variables to take into account. Moreover, neither the software nor traditional computers have the capacity to test all possible solutions.
That is precisely where quantum computing comes in. As it is geared to coping with a huge number of parameters, a quantum computer should be able to work out the best possible treatment for a given patent, achieving not only a more precise result but, in theory, much faster as well.
D-Wave has already carried out an initial study in conjunction with the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, a medical research facility in Buffalo, New York State that is recognised as being at the cutting edge of radiotherapy research.
Understanding the structure of proteins
Proteins are the basic building blocks of life. They are made up of amino acid chains which fold back on themselves to form three-dimensional structures. The function of each protein is thus determined by both the composition of the molecule chains created by the chemical constituents and the fold structure. Malfunction of a given protein is frequently due to its being wrongly folded.
While the chemical composition of proteins is quite well known, their physical structure is much less well understood, due to the extremely high number of possibilities. Obtaining more detailed knowledge of the way proteins are folded will therefore lead to greater understanding of human life and to the development of new therapies and medicines.
Here again, a quantum computer will in theory be able to simultaneously test a huge number of possible protein fold structures and identify the most promising ones much more rapidly than any traditional computer.
Accordingly, D-Wave has developed, in collaboration with Harvard University, a technique that enables medical researchers to model protein folding. The latest research indicates that nature optimises the amino acid sequences so as to create the most stable protein.
So when can we expect to see all this in practice?
The arrival of widespread quantum computing will have to wait until the problem of quantum incoherence has been solved. In the meantime, D-Wave has been collaborating with Google, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Washington DC-based Universities Space Research Association (USRA) on setting up a Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab , and has also been working closely with Lockheed Martin, which has bought a D-Wave machine and installed it at the company Information Science Institute.
At all events, it seems a safe bet that that physicians will end up gaining some understanding of quantum mechanics!
What exactly is a quantum computer?
The celebrated physicist Richard Feynman used to say: “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, then you don’t.” That’s not a bad introduction as we try to unravel how quantum computers work.
Unlike a classical computer, which solves problems one after the other in sequence, a quantum computer is designed to solve multiple problems simultaneously. A classical computer has a memory made up of ‘bits’ of information, based on a binary system in which each ‘bit’ takes the value 1 or 0. A quantum computer however has what are known as ‘qbits’, each of which may represent the value 1, 0, or any quantum superposition of those two qubit states, which means that a quantum computer enables calculations to be carried out in parallel.
Take for example two classical computer bits. The two bits may in sequence – i.e. NOT simultaneously – take the following pairs of values: 0-0, 0-1, 1-0 and 1-1. In contrast, a quantum computer may simultaneously take all of these values. This means that with two qbits you can carry out four operations, compared with the two operations which a traditional computer can perform with two bits. L’Atelier’s more mathematically-inclined readers will recognise the general rule that with n qbits, a quantum computer may be in a quantum superposition of 2^n states and will thus possess the capacity to solve that number of problems simultaneously.