Pharma has been a limited industry. It has so far only been able to work within the confines of the technology that society has produced. It may be able to afford the fastest computers, but it has only been the fastest that have been available.
Even with the increased speeds of these systems, the increases have been incremental rather than a big jump. It has meant that small discoveries could be made, but not anywhere near the number of potential discoveries that could be made.
This is because the interaction of drugs and accurately predicting how they will affect humans is incredibly complex. There are literally billions of possibilities to how something could react across the human body and even more when you consider that this could be a drug administered to billions of people, each with slight differences in their makeup.
Trying to compute this many scenarios takes serious processing power and until recently computing power was significantly limited in this respect.
However, quantum computing may be the key to being able to process this huge amount of data to not only help to make trials safer and avoid the disasters such as the TGN 1421 experiment a few years ago, but also holds distinct possibilities for drugs in the future.
We are at a stage now where drugs are becoming less effective thanks in part to their overuse in the past 50 years and patients not finishing their complete courses. It has meant that many of the drugs that have traditionally formed the foundation of treatments may become useless.
It is this use of supercomputers that can process data at thousands of times faster than traditional computing, that could make finding alternatives a real possibility. Being able to model potential new drugs quickly is going to be the key to being able to either find replacements for these fundamental drugs or to make them more effective.
Quantum computing is not going to allow people to look at different elements, but will instead allow scientists to increase the speed that new drugs can be modelled and potential cures for diseases found. It will also not speed up the trials or distribution, but will allow drugs to either go to trial considerably quicker or make sure that those that make it to trial have been modelled and theoretically tested considerably more thoroughly.
The way that quantum computing works is by not using the transistors that make up a regular computer. With transistors the data being used is converted into bits and is either on or off within each. Quantum computers use the quantum-mechanics phenomena which allows these to be either on, off or both. It means that the processing power of these is considerably more than traditional computers, so more information can be processed in a significantly shorter period of time.
At the moment the technology is not ready for commercial use, but we are seeing that it is starting to head in the right direction and early experiments have been fairly positive with a limited number of qubits (the quantum version of regular bits) being used. Companies like Google have already begun to use this for image recognition and data centric processes with early indications showing a real potential for the future.
Arguably the work done through these types of systems in pharma may have the most impact on society, but we are going to see in the coming years that these computers will become incredibly useful in a number of different areas. From the basic ways that companies are using them to run complex tasks to tracking huge scientific datasets, this type of computing is going to change the world.
We are presently at the very beginning of the practical stage with quantum computers. They currently needing to be housed in huge secure areas in order to work in much the same way that Alan Turing's first computer did. As with traditional desktop computers, they will decrease in price and increase in speed in the coming years, which is something that the pharma industry will be monitoring closely. At present many commentators believe that in the short term, quantum computing will be done as a service rather than as an on-site system, mainly because of the size. This means that data may be accessed online then processed remotely.
However it is progresses, one thing certain thing is that it has the potential to make a huge difference to pharma and society in the future.