Written by Virginia Mahieu.
Quantum technologies could be a game-changer in the digital transformation of health care. By enabling much faster and more complex data analysis, they could open the door to the accelerated discovery and development of novel therapeutics, improved diagnostics and treatments, including for rare and complex diseases, genuinely personalised medicine, and better data-driven health policy planning. However, as is also the case in other sectors, quantum technologies come with risks, particularly to cybersecurity and data privacy, as well as economics, trade, and global competition. The EU legislators need to prepare the health technology assessment process for the possible changes that this developing technology could entail.
The advent of quantum computing (one aspect of the broader category of quantum technologies) has been on the horizon for some time. Where a classical computer uses binary code to store data, a quantum computer uses qubits. Conceptually, if a bit is like either end of a piece of string, a qubit could be anywhere on that piece of string. In practice, this could allow for drastically faster computing speeds, potentially cutting certain calculations that would take today’s fastest supercomputer 10 000 years to 200 seconds (though this specific claim is debated).
This extra computing power has a broad range of potential applications in all fields and across all of society, including in health care. However, as with many disruptive technologies it is important to consider possible unintended side effects of its deployment, so that long-term policy decisions can maximise on the opportunities that it brings and mitigate potential risks to human health and healthcare systems.
Quantum technologies allow the use of much more complex algorithms and simulations, allowing calculations to be performed in a fraction of the time needed by a classical computer, thus potentially rendering them accessible to healthcare practitioners and researchers in their day-to-day work. In parallel, the body of available health and medical data sources (such as electronic health records and clinical trial results) is growing, and is expected to be boosted by the implementation of the European health data space. These two factors in combination – more accessible high-power computing and more data to run it on – have the potential to revolutionise health care in the EU, to move from reactive to predictive treatment, reducing health costs and saving lives.
For instance, quantum-supported molecular modelling could improve researchers’ ability to find, develop, and administer new therapeutics, including for diseases that are currently untreatable. Already today, the European High Performance Computing Joint Undertaking (EuroHPC JU) is actively searching for treatments for COVID-19. A quantum computer could accelerate this process to the point that we could beat another pandemic before it even began. This boost in algorithmic processing power could also enable clinical trials to be done in silico (i.e. in a computer rather than a living being), whereby a digital twin of an organ or an entire body could be created to simulate and virtually study the effects of a treatment and its interaction with genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. This would have the dual benefit of reducing the need for animal and human research, while also streamlining and reducing costs in the clinical trials process. It would also mean that researchers could control variables more easily than with live patients, for example by accounting for whether patients use a treatment correctly and in the prescribed way (i.e. at the right time with the right dosage), and improving the certainty of how well new and existing medicines work.
Furthermore, quantum computing could boost researchers’ ability to sequence and analyse genetic information rapidly, giving better insight into the functions of the human genome and its interactions with the environment. Along the same vein, it could allow for better research and understanding of the complex interactions of microorganisms in the gut and body, which play a major role in many aspects of health and well-being. Quantum technologies, especially quantum imaging and quantum sensing could improve imaging diagnoses from, for example, MRI or PET scanners. Not only would it generally help make more powerful medical algorithmic decisions, quantum sensors could make highly precise biological measurements and take better resolution images than current methods. Quantum computing could also facilitate data-driven optimisation (and possibly reduction) of pricing of health insurance premiums, as well as improving detection of fraudulent insurance claims.
All of this information could go into patient care, to achieve truly personalised medicine, and could even be used to predict and prevent illnesses, ultimately reducing healthcare costs and improving quality of life as well as life expectancy. For example, imagine a patient presents to a neurologist with symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. By combining a digital model of the patient’s brain with their health records, genetic, cellular, and environmental information, a doctor could use a quantum molecular simulation to determine exactly which treatment to administer, at what dosage, what side effects the treatment might incur and how to reduce these. Indeed, a doctor could even estimate with high certainty whether a patient was likely to develop Parkinson’s disease in the first place and tailor preventative treatment for them.
Supporting innovation in healthcare technologies is essential in the face of mounting global health challenges, such as an ageing population, a rise in non-communicable diseases, and health inequalities. The advances in health care facilitated by quantum computing outlined above will have a broad impact on society, which EU policy must anticipate to be able to reap its advantages fully. In addition, challenges may arise. For instance, the intellectual property of the technology may be proprietary (e.g. owned by Google or IBM), adding to the already-complex duality of healthcare as a public service provisioned by private corporations. Furthermore, healthcare cybersecurity and data protection – already important considerations in the digitalisation of health – will become all the more relevant due to concerns over the potential for the first quantum computers to break through existing classical computing security systems easily. Conversely, quantum cryptography could also help make data much more secure. This is particularly relevant given the sensitive nature of health data, especially that involving quantum-accelerated genetic sequencing. With the increasing use and availability of genetic data – considered sensitive personal data under the GDPR – genetic privacy could become a greater issue of concern, tied to the protection of fundamental rights.
Beyond direct patient care and research and innovation, there are also dimensions of external relations, health diplomacy, trade, and competition to be considered. The development of quantum computing is the current-day space race, and the EU must be at the forefront of this geostrategic competition to maintain its position in the global pharmaceutical market, and as a healthcare leader. If the EU lags behind, its strategic partners and rivals could gain significant advantages, and it would become more difficult for the EU to catch up. The Quantum Technologies Flagship, an initiative launched in 2018, is boosting research in the EU into all aspects of quantum technologies. Its main pillars include quantum computing, simulation, communication, and sensing, all of which have healthcare applications. In parallel, the EU is planning to build state-of-the-art ‘hybrid’ computers blending quantum and already-existing classical computing technologies by 2023, as part of the EuroHPC JU. By June 2019, all 27 EU Member States had signed the EuroQCI Declaration, agreeing to work together towards building a secure EU-wide quantum communications infrastructure. It will consist of an earth-based component linking strategic sites using existing fibre networks, as well as a space component to cover long distances. In conjunction with these initiatives, the implementation of the European health data space must be strategically prepared for the upcoming advances and changes that the EU’s investments in quantum technologies will bring.
Read this ‘at a glance’ on ‘What if quantum technologies were to revolutionise healthcare?‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.
Listen to podcast ‘What if quantum technologies were to revolutionise healthcare?’ on YouTube.