Jan 28, 2021 - Science

Quantum computing comes to drug discovery

Illustration of quantum by showing an atom with electrons swirling around that are binary numbers
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The pharmaceutical giant Roche is partnering with a quantum computing startup to find new treatments for disease.

Why it matters: The ability of quantum computers to model reality at the most foundational levels positions it as an ideal tool for rapidly searching for new drugs — provided, of course, the computers themselves can work.

Driving the news: This morning Roche announced it would begin using specialized algorithms produced by Cambridge Quantum Computing (CQC) to simulate quantum-level interactions in an effort to research new treatments for Alzheimer's and other diseases.

How it works: CQC doesn't build quantum computers, which harness the weird workings of quantum mechanics to perform computation at extraordinary scales. Rather, it designs custom algorithms that can produce useful insights when run on a quantum computer.

  • Roche will use CQC's EUMEN quantum chemistry platform to simulate quantum-level interactions in an effort to identify molecular combinations that could prove effective against disease.
  • Finding a new drug is akin to searching for a needle in a haystack, but the sheer speed of quantum computers can accelerate that process, saving drug companies money and hopefully getting new treatments to patients faster.

Background: Roche had previously worked with graduate students at the University of Oxford on molecular simulations, while earlier this month the European drug discovery firm Boehringer Ingelheim announced a partnership with Google on quantum computing.

  • "Especially in chemistry and material science, the impact of quantum computing is going to be profound," Ilyas Khan, CQC's CEO, told Axios in an interview last year.

The catch: While powerful, quantum computers are still error-prone and unstable, which has limited their practical value.

  • That puts a premium on the development of custom algorithms that can get the most out of these systems.

The bottom line: As Khan told me, "ultimately you need a quantum system to understand a quantum system."

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