With over $1.42 trillion in revenue throughout the U.S., the pharma industry presents many lucrative opportunities for quantum computing companies. Because drug design and the creation of new materials are researched on a molecular scale, the subjects in question essentially become quantum systems. This makes it significantly easier for quantum computers to analyze and simulate these materials as the computers are also quantum systems. While classical computing is already being applied (usually in combination with machine learning) to drug simulations, quantum computing may not only streamline the discovery process but may also create a paradigm shift for the entire pharma industry.
“Development is so fundamental that pharma spends a full 15 percent of its own sales on R&D,” explained a 2021 McKinsey and Company article. Quantum computing can significantly lower these costs by using simulations for in-silico clinical trials. Here, participants and different drug treatments would be simulated, allowing a quantum computer to test drug protocols and optimize for solutions in a cheaper and more efficient way. Other quantum simulations look at molecular interactions between proteins in order to predict how a drug might work. Recent research from the quantum computing company Riverlane created special algorithms using an embedding technique to study the enzyme hydrogenase and the photosensitizer molecule temoporfin. “We want to find a way of calculating an active part of a drug within a protein environment on a quantum computer,” explained Riverlane’s Manager of Quantum Science, Dr. Nicole Holzmann. “But this is very difficult to do because the systems are super big. So that’s why we need to find a way to isolate the active section of a protein and to calculate that little bit on a quantum computer.”
Classical computing has already been creating drug simulations via CADD (Computer-Assisted Drug Discovery). With CADD, researchers can use machine learning to create simulations of molecular interactions. However, CADD does have its limits, as it looks over all the data, even possible “dead end” molecules. This limitation can create a bottleneck for the pharma industry, as it limits which molecules can be studied. With a quantum computer, this process can be streamlined and faster, allowing for a more accelerated discovery process. With actual drug trials will not be replaced by drug simulations, these computer simulations can help pinpoint potential treatment protocols in a much more cost-effective manner. “If you look at the drug design cycle, it takes many, many years, like 12 years to design a drug,” stated Holzmann. “It’s very, very expensive. You may start with millions of molecules and in the end, you’re happy if you have a handful of potential candidates. And in that long process, where there are a lot of experimental steps.” Quantum computing may not only help to cut this process down significantly but may also cause a potential paradigm shift in the pharma industry. With more computing power, quantum computers can also expand the types of simulated molecular systems to include things like antibodies or even entire peptides.
The Timeline for Quantum Computing in the Pharma Industry
While quantum computers offer these many benefits, it may be a while before they can be fully applied. One of the reasons for this lag is the lack of use cases. While companies like Riverlane are experimenting with possible use cases (such as in their partnership with both Astex Pharmaceuticals and Rigetti Computing), it will take some time to develop enough use cases to utilize quantum computing. The other main reason for this time delay is hardware development. Current quantum computers that are being applied to new materials or drug discovery are considered to be NISQs (Noisy Intermediate Scale Quantum), where they still contain errors and other issues. McKinsey and Company believe that error-free quantum computers will be available beyond 2030, and will make big waves in the pharma industry. Companies like Quantum Brilliance are hoping to use unique hardware, like diamond quantum accelerators, to overcome these hardware challenges. “Quantum Brilliance is building the room temperature quantum microprocessors that will power the next generation of computing,” explained Quantum Brilliance’s Quantum Applications Development Lead, Dr. Florian Preis. “Since room-temperature quantum accelerators do not require large infrastructure to create stable and controllable qubits these can be miniaturized. Our unique diamond-based technology promises to dramatically expand the scope of quantum computing. From mass-installation of quantum processing units (QPUs) alongside CPUs, GPUs, FPGA, and dedicated AI chips in supercomputers, to distributed quantum computing in offices, vehicles, and satellites. This lowers the entry barrier to employ quantum algorithms in hybrid quantum-classical computational workflows and to integrate QPUs in datacenters in the industry.”
Similarly, Riverlane is trying to work out these issues. “That’s another area where Riverlane is putting a lot of effort to correct errors that happen on these machines,” Holzmann added. “So, we have a lot of qubits that you use for computation, and during that computation, some of them will break. It just happens, it will always happen, even if we have better machines. To make this computation useful, we will need to calibrate for these errors.”
Other quantum companies like Quantinuum are already pushing ahead to try and shorten the timeline. Recently, Quantinuum released InQuanto, a quantum computational chemistry software specifically designed for chemists to utilize multiple quantum algorithms on a quantum computer. “Quantum computing offers a path to rapid and cost-effective development of new molecules and materials that could unlock novel answers to some of the biggest challenges we face,” explained Patrick Moorhead, CEO and Chief Analyst of Moor Insights and Strategy in Quantinuum’s press release. Though InQuanto is the first of this kind of platform, it will surely not be the last as other quantum companies hope to leverage their computing power at the ground level by partnering with various pharmaceutical companies. As more of these partnerships ensue, the pharma industry may be forever changed by the power that is quantum computing.
Kenna Hughes-Castleberry is a staff writer at Inside Quantum Technology and the Science Communicator at JILA (a partnership between the University of Colorado Boulder and NIST). Her writing beats include deep tech, the metaverse, and quantum technology.