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Roche to use quantum computing for drug discovery

January 28, 2021, 7:00 AM UTC

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Swiss pharmaceutical firm Roche is partnering with a U.K. company to use quantum computing techniques to find new treatments for diseases, including Alzheimer’s.

Cambridge Quantum Computing, a company in Cambridge, England, that helps businesses use specialized algorithms designed to run on a quantum computer, said Roche will begin using a software platform it has built that helps simulate quantum-level chemical interactions to research possible Alzheimer treatments and, eventually, potential drugs for other diseases too.

“For many years quantum computing has held out great promise for discovering new therapeutics that aid humanity in fighting some of the most devastating and damaging diseases,” Ilyas Khan, Cambridge Quantum Computing’s chief executive, said. “We are pleased that due to the careful and pioneering efforts of our research teams, some of this promise is starting to come to fruition.”  

The algorithms Cambridge Quantum Computing designs can be run on a quantum computer or, in some cases, used to simulate quantum effects using a standard computer. The company does not itself build quantum computers.

Quantum computers are an emerging technology in which machines use the properties of quantum physics to perform calculations. In a traditional computer, information is represented in a binary format called a bit, with a value of either 0 or 1. In a quantum computer, information is represented by something called a qubit that can represent both 0 and 1 at the same time. Also, in a normal computer, each bit is independent of the others, whereas in a quantum computer the qubits influence one another, working together to arrive at a solution.

In theory, these properties make quantum computers capable of performing calculations that no existing traditional supercomputer could solve in a reasonable time period. In 2019, Google claimed to have achieved a milestone called “quantum supremacy” in which it used a quantum computer to perform a calculation that it would have taken a conventional supercomputer an estimated 10,000 years to solve.

But today’s quantum computers can remain in a quantum state only for very short periods of time—and as they fall out of a quantum state, errors creep into their calculations. Companies like Cambridge Quantum Computing specialize in designing algorithms that can still do useful things—such as helping financial firms assess the risk of a portfolio or a logistics company find the best way to route its delivery vans—even with these error-prone calculations.

Like many pharmaceutical firms, Roche has had a small team monitoring recent advances in quantum computing and working on simple proof-of-concept projects. It has previously worked with a group of graduate students from the University of Oxford on molecular simulations, similar to the ones it will now be doing in partnership with Cambridge Quantum Computing. It has also explored partnership with the technology companies that have built working quantum computers and allow businesses to perform calculations on them through cloud-computing networks.