How algorithms hope to cure disease with quantum computing

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If you had to find a grain of sand on every beach in the universe, how would you find it? That’s the figurative challenge Finnish software start-up Algorithm hopes to solve through a new partnership with IBM to be announced today. The Helsinki-based quantum computing company hopes its technology will revolutionize the way new drugs are developed to combat disease.

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“We believe that there are some problems that can only be solved using quantum computing,” says Sabrina Maniscalko, CEO and co-founder of Algorithm. “Quantum advantage is going to help break the current impasse in drug development, where life sciences companies are spending more and more on research, but are not seeing any increase in the number of new drugs to come.”

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The algorithm’s software will aid in the all-important drug discovery phase of drug development. Life science and pharmaceutical companies already use powerful computers to model how molecules will behave inside the human body – and therefore to predict which drugs will work well against which diseases. But while it represents a significant advance over traditional research methods, traditional computers can only run simulations up to a certain point, warns Maniscalco. “Now we are reaching the limit of what is possible with this approach,” she says.

Enter quantum computers, which use quantum mechanics to perform certain types of computation more efficiently—in other words, more quickly—than conventional machines. With software developed specifically to run on such machines – employing complex new types of algorithms – it has the potential to break through the current ceiling, Maniscalco explains.

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“This approach is not only incrementally superior, although it will certainly reduce the time and cost of drug discovery,” she says. “It’s really disruptive.”

This is where the grain of sand metaphor comes in. Maniscalco says there are 1063 molecules in existence in the universe, each of which may have a role in a new drug. She says the algorithm’s software can find them all if run on a computer powerful enough. For traditional computers, the maximum limit is like 1016.

That’s why today’s deal with IBM is so important. By joining IBM’s quantum network, the algorithm will be able to offer a commercially viable proposition for the life sciences and pharmaceutical businesses. They will be able to access the hardware and software needed to use quantum computing for drug discovery. Maniscalco thinks the first drugs to be developed in this way could be available for testing within the next three years.

CEO and Co-Founder of Algorithms Sabrina Manisalko


For algorithms, this potentially represents a huge growth opportunity. The company will initially seek to monetize its technology through partnerships with life science businesses — effectively making its platform available for use in its drug discovery programs; It would earn license fees and potential drug royalties through such an arrangement.

However, in the long term, Maniscalco has bigger ambitions for the business. “We want to be the first quantum-powered biotech and do everything in-house,” she explains.

She goes on to say that the quantum advantage is not just a question of the increased processing power of quantum computers. The way these machines work is also a better match for the drug discovery process. Quantum computers operate at the level of quantum physics – just like molecules that need to be researched during discovery. “The power here is the ability to emulate other quantum systems,” explains Maniscalco.

This is an important point, says Ivano Tavernelli, global leader of advanced algorithms for quantum simulation at IBM Research. “Professor Maniscalco is a leader in the field and an expert in enhancing the performance of quantum hardware through his work to reduce the noise that can damage quantum systems,” he says. “We support the ambition of the algorithm and believe that the company’s work will be instrumental in charting a path toward demonstrating quantum advantages with near-term quantum algorithms.”

Above all, it is an exciting proposition for society, as the world’s population seeks new treatments for complex diseases and conditions. The algorithm has begun talking to leading life science and pharmaceutical businesses about the potential applications of its technology.

The industry gets it, says Maniscalco. “Almost every pharmaceutical company is now developing an in-house team with quantum expertise so they can talk to people like us,” she says.

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