Applying quantum technologies to the life sciences

Quantum computer, photo by Bartek Wróblewski/Adobe Stock

Bartek Wróblewski/Adobe Stock

Researchers assessed the global research landscape associated with the development and adoption of quantum technologies in the life sciences, highlighting current developments, opportunities and challenges, initiatives, and activities to help enable the ecosystem in the future.

What is the issue?

Over the next few years, quantum technologies are expected to lead to new products and services having potentially transformative impacts across many sectors including the life sciences. Recognising the disruptive potential of quantum technologies in the future, several countries and funders have taken active measures to invest in quantum technologies research and innovation (R&I). However, despite the numerous opportunities, the development and application of quantum technologies also pose several challenges that will need to be addressed if the benefits of the technologies are to be fully realised.

How did we help?

RAND Europe, supported by Digital Science, conducted a comprehensive landscape review to understand the key trends, potential applications, challenges and opportunities, and the general direction of travel of developments associated with the application of quantum technologies to the life sciences. The study focussed on quantum computers and quantum simulators and included topics such as quantum electronics, quantum software, quantum algorithms, quantum materials, and qubit control and engineering, and the applications of these topics to the life sciences.

The research analysed both qualitative and quantitative evidence using a mixed methods approach that included a detailed literature review, interviews with experts, and a comprehensive scientometric analysis of global quantum computer and simulator research.

What did we find?

  • Quantum computers are starting to show advances over classical computers in specific and limited problem areas.
  • There is an increasing diversity of technological approaches in quantum computing hardware and software.
  • There are increased investments in quantum technology by the public and private sectors.
  • Currently, national governments remain the major source of funding for quantum computer and simulator research.
  • Joint national and international initiatives are supporting and strengthening the quantum technology R&I ecosystem.
  • Globally, publication activity related to quantum computer and simulator research has diversified and increased sharply over the last few years, with a variety of academic institutions and companies active across the globe.

Current developments in the application of quantum computers and simulators to the life sciences

  • Quantum computers and simulators are increasingly being applied and tested within the life sciences.
  • This is occurring across several domains including drug design and discovery, quantum chemistry, biomolecular processes, and genetics and genomics.
  • The application in these areas is currently at an early, proof of concept stage, where testing is taking place on small-scale problems.
  • Start-up companies are adding dynamism and accelerating the pace of development in the quantum technology life sciences industry.

Key opportunities

  • While there are multiple and differing forecasts, there is general agreement among experts that, in the long term, quantum computers and quantum simulators promise a myriad of opportunities in the life sciences that could fundamentally change the industry.
  • There are potential opportunities in the areas of quantum chemistry and simulation of chemical processes.
  • Quantum computing is expected to optimise the process of small molecule drug design and discovery.
  • Quantum computing could be used to help develop new and more effective biological products and drugs.
  • Quantum computing applied to genetics and genomics is expected to support the development of personalised and precision medicine.

Key challenges

  • The realisation of many life sciences use cases will require further developments to scale up quantum computers and simulators which could prove challenging. For example, further developments in quantum hardware are needed, as well as the development of specialised quantum algorithms and investment in key enabling materials.
  • There are challenges related to the availability and types of skills in the wider ecosystem.
  • Certain regulations and compliance requirements may present hurdles when applying quantum computers and simulators to industry.
  • There are challenges related to collaboration between different disciplines and sectors working towards growing the quantum computers and simulators ecosystem.
  • The lack of a precise and proven business impact hinders long-term investments both by use case owners and ecosystem partners.
  • Potential risks associated with the use of quantum computers and simulators could have ethical implications and undermine trust.

What can be done?

We outline a set of potential activities to help enable the quantum technology life sciences ecosystem in the future.

  • Focusing on developing and nurturing a diverse and skilled workforce within academia and industry – by training, reskilling and upskilling – is key to helping create an environment in which R&I can flourish and will help build a resilient pipeline of talent working at the intersection of the life sciences and quantum computers and simulators R&I.
  • Stimulating the creation and continued support of inclusive, multi-stakeholder collaborations, particularly those that involve partnerships between industry, universities, and government, will be critical to capturing a variety of perspectives and aiding the development and eventual commercialisation of novel quantum technology applications in the life sciences.
  • At the country level, developing and/or participating in national and international quantum technology initiatives (e.g. policy measures, strategies, actions and plans) – including bilateral and multilateral initiatives with multiple stakeholders – will be important to support and strengthen the ecosystem and help develop the necessary technical infrastructure to address the future needs of the industry.
  • Systematically capturing the lessons learnt from different activities in the quantum technology R&I ecosystem – on both ‘what works’ and ‘what does not work’ – and creating incentives to disseminate those lessons through various fora can help foster a culture of openness, transparency and knowledge sharing.
  • Given the relatively early stage of development of quantum technologies around the world (particularly in relation to the life sciences) and its potential to have a paradigm-shifting impact on society, it is important that key stakeholder involved are ‘patient’ and embrace a holistic, long-term and foresight-driven approach to its development and adoption.
  • Alongside the continuation of long-term public investment, incentivising private sector investment and nurturing the evolving start-up and small and medium-sized enterprises ecosystem will be key to ensuring dynamism and accelerating growth in the application of quantum computers and simulators to the life sciences.
  • The life sciences industry could consider engaging in discussions with different public and private sector stakeholders to encourage the growth of the specific remit of public sector support of quantum computers and simulators R&I beyond their current focus to more actively include the life sciences.