Are Quantum Computers the Future of Drug Discovery and Development?

quantum computers

Scientists have developed a computer capable of determining the lowest energy state of three compounds; bring them closer to using quantum computers for the discovery and development of new drugs.

The advent of powerful computers has allowed for substantial progress in fields like statistics, bioinformatics, and medicine. However, classical computers are limited in their progressing capabilities, which have led scientists to an increased interest in the development of quantum computers. Classical computers store information in bits, which can be set to either 0 or 1. In contrast, quantum computers employ the use of quantum bits or ‘qubits’ that can be set to 0, 1, or 0-and-1 at the same time. These qubits provide quantum computers more processing power and thus can be used to compute tasks and simulations that a classical computer cannot.

There are many universities and companies around the globe that are actively developing quantum computers. The developers hope that these powerful computers may one day be utilized in the discovery and development of novel drugs and materials. Currently, classical computers are being used to simulate how atoms and molecules behave; however, these simulations are significantly limited in their computing ability. Developers hope that the increased processing power of quantum computers may allow researchers to simulate more complex molecules and their interactions. These simulations could help scientists determine important drug properties and how they may interact with other proteins.

Science magazine reports that financial and temporal investments into the development of quantum computers have yielded significant progress. For instance, last year at Google’s quantum research lab, located in Venice, California, used three qubits to determine the lowest energy state of molecular hydrogen. More recently, IBM used six qubits to calculate the lowest energy state of hydrogen, lithium hydride, and beryllium hydride molecules.

It is important to note, however, that the quantum-computer-based measurements are not completely accurate due to the inevitable errors that accompany quantum calculations. In addition, current quantum computers are limited by their sensitivity of qubits. For instance, the 0-and-1 states are sensitive to temperature fluctuations, as well as stray electric and magnetic fields. Nonetheless, the recent progress demonstrates that quantum computers could eventually provide researchers with the ability to better understand known molecules, their interactions, and potentially discover novel drugs and materials.

Written by Haisam Shah, BSc

Citation: Popkin, G. (2017). Quantum computer simulates largest molecule yet, sparking hope of future drug discoveries. Science Mag.

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