Some Straight Talk on Quantum Computing Applications in Health Care

“Nature isn’t classical, dammit, and if you want to make a simulation of nature, you’d better make it quantum mechanical.”

Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist
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Quantum computing remains a nascent technology, but its potential is already being felt across many sectors. Quantum computers will soon be able to tackle some problems much faster than any conventional computer. These capabilities could significantly impact how businesses approach challenges involving a daunting number of variables and potential outcomes — like simulating chemical interactions, optimizing logistics, or sorting through massive datasets. Health care is one industry that stands to benefit from the use of quantum computing. But, as with any emerging technology, there are potential upsides and downsides to its adoption.

First, some basics – Quantum physics describes the behavior of atoms and fundamental particles, like electrons or photons. A quantum computer operates by controlling the behavior of these particles, which is very different from how our traditional computers work. It isn’t by chance that quantum computers don’t measure their performance in bits, but qubits – while the former resembles either ones or zeros, and thus the mathematical description of problems, the latter signifies states, which can simultaneously take up ones and zeros, or anything in-between. This means qubits have fluid identities or represent certain percentages and probabilities between two endpoints.

As phenomena in nature are not necessarily describable by ones and zeros, quantum computing could open up better ways to simulate nature. (See the quote from Richard Feynman above)

How might quantum computing impact health care? – Quantum computers could impact healthcare in many ways. For example, Google recently announced using a quantum computer to simulate a chemical reaction, a milestone for the nascent technology. Though the specific interaction was relatively simple — current classical computers can model it too — future quantum computers should be able to simulate complex molecular interactions much more accurately than classical computers. So what are some of the potential use cases for quantum computing in health care?

Accelerating drug discovery and design – Developing pharmaceuticals through lengthy and costly clinical trials is definitely passé: scientists and pharma companies started to experiment with alternative ways, such as using artificial intelligence, human organs-on-chips or in silico trials, to speed up the process and make drug discovery and development more cost-effective. Running searches on quantum computers could unfold, looking through all possible molecules with unimaginable speed, drug target tests conducted in every potential cell model or in silico human tissues and networks in the shortest amount of time possible.

Several pharma giants have shown interest in quantum computing. Merck’s venture arm, for instance, participated in Zapata’s $38M Series B round in September 2020. Meanwhile, Biogen partnered with quantum computing software startup 1QBit and Accenture to build a platform for comparing molecules to help speed up the early stages of drug discovery.

Making in-silico clinical trials a reality – In silico clinical trials mean that no humans, no animals, not even a single cell is required for testing a particular therapy, treatment option, or drug, yet its impact can be perfectly charted. It means an individualized computer simulation used in the development or regulatory evaluation of a medicinal product, device, or intervention. Quantum computing could significantly advance the building of ‘virtual humans’ and complete simulations. It would not only massively shorten the time necessary for such trials but also improve their quality and completeness.

Near real-time DNA sequencing – Although the technical conditions, the time, and the cost of sequencing genomes were reduced by a factor of 1 million in less than ten years, the revolution lags behind. Quantum computing could give a significant push to the area: faster sequencing, as well as a more comprehensive and faster analysis of the entire genome, will be possible with it. Plus, predictions will be more reliable as quantum computers could take into account even more information than traditional computers, and they could even build every piece of genomic data into health records.

Processing boatloads of patient-generated data and putting it in context – In the future, health sensors, wearables, and tiny medical gadgets could send zettabytes of data about patients into the cloud. In 2013, the amount of digital data encompassed 4.4 zettabytes, and last year the information created measured 44 zettabytes or 44 trillion gigabytes. Quantum computers will be able to make sense of these enormous amounts of data, including bits and pieces of health information. Moreover, surveillance of patients through connected sensory systems might render physical hospitals useless – and genuinely make patients the point of care. (For a more in-depth discussion on digital sensors in health care, see my previous post here) Using quantum computers, fed by vast amounts of health parameters, genetic information, sensory data, and other personal health information, might be able to give a comprehensive prediction about a given person’s future health.

Safeguarding medical data – In her TED talk, Shohini Ghose mentioned the use of quantum uncertainty for encryption as one of the most probable applications of quantum computing. She believes it could be used for creating private keys for encrypting messages sent from one location to another – so that hackers could not copy the key perfectly due to quantum uncertainty. They would have to break the laws of quantum physics to hack such keys. Imagine that level of security applied to sensitive medical information: electronic health records, genetic and genomic data, or any other private information that the health system generates about our bodies.

What are the potential downsides of using quantum computing in health care? – The same data applications covered above, however, is where quantum computing poses a real threat that regulators and tech developers alike are seeking to solve. (For a more detailed look at ransomware in health care, see my previous post here) Powerful quantum computers threaten to break cryptography techniques like RSA encryption that are commonly used today to keep sensitive data and electronic communications secure.

“If I was a payer right now, security and ransomware would be keeping me up at night. Simply complying with HIPAA is not enough. New technology like quantum computing will make it more difficult to stop hackers, especially state actors.”

Roy Wyman, a partner with the legal firm Nelson Mullins

So, where are we today? – Quantum computing is becoming more common but still very expensive. Announcements like the ten-year partnership between IBM and The Cleveland Clinic to deploy a quantum computing system will be rare. As noted in the statement, “it takes a very forward-looking organization to invest heavily in quantum computing today. It’s one thing for a nation-state to start working with this nascent technology, given the potential it has in a wide variety of fields, but it’s another for a nonprofit to make a similar bet.”

Individual health systems may not be able to afford their own quantum computing systems. One potential solution for health plans: banding together to create security cooperatives to share resources, group data where appropriate, and segment it where critical firewalls are needed. This could be accomplished via a joint venture, one of healthcare’s favorite ways to turn competitors into collaborators, that is funded by participating members. Data partnership companies like Truveta are uniquely positioned to capitalize on the adoption of quantum computing. Truveta has access to health data representing 15% of the U.S. through its 17 healthcare system members. And, their partnership with Microsoft gives them a solid tech partner who can invest time, money, and resources to build out a stable platform to meet their current needs and scale as required to foster future growth opportunities.

My take – This is genuinely very nascent technology, and we don’t fully understand the cost/benefit calculation when considering deploying quantum computing systems in health care. CB Insights notes that while quantum computing “faces several hurdles, … the payoff may still be worth it. Some think that quantum computing represents the next big paradigm shift for computing—akin to the emergence of the internet or the PC.”

But, we also need to consider the necessary regulatory and security revisions that will need to be put into place to capitalize on the potential benefits and minimize the inherent risks in implementing the technology. We either need to revise HIPAA to put more resources behind it or, even better, take a step back to reassess privacy and security and how we deal with them. Quantum computing and regulatory frameworks remind us that it will take collaborative, integrated, and simultaneously occurring reforms—along with redefined business models and value chains—for sustained healthcare reform.

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