Quantum Computing: The Future of Cancer Research?

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Quantum computing: Faster computers enable faster cancer research
Quantum computing: Faster computers enable faster cancer research

Cancer researchers looking for cures agree that the more computing power they have access to, the faster their research will progress.

Right now, researchers share time on super computers, which are large clusters of computing servers all tied together and working as one. This sharing policy means scientists are allowed only so much time to perform their tests before they have to relinquish the super computer to another team of researchers waiting in line to use it.

Garry Nolan, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Stanford University in Stanford, CA, finds himself frustrated by the limited access he is given to existing super computing power. There are simply too many scientists waiting in line, and too many projects in the queue. Work has to be broken into parts and then reassembled because there is rarely enough time given on a super computer to complete an experiment in one sitting.

This begs the question: Why can't we just make faster computers?

A next-generation computer known as a quantum computer and developed by the Canadian Company D-Wave went online with Lockheed Martin in early 2013.1 Lockheed Martin bought a previous version of the D-Wave One Quantum computer in 2001.2 But the move to place the new version into commercial operation makes Lockheed Martin, a government contractor that runs complex computer simulations as part of its product development, the first company to introduce quantum computing as part of its business operations.

In a presentation about the promise of quantum computing, Lockheed Martin states that the USC-Lockheed Martin Quantum Computation Center (QCC), which houses the company's new D-Wave One, is “the largest functional quantum information processor ever built” and that it can sort through “more variables than all of the digital data created in an entire year.”3

In the hands of cancer researchers, a quantum computer that can outrun the computational speed of tens of thousands of traditional super computers would rapidly accelerate the pace of research in “genomics, genetics, radiation physics, and biomedical imaging,” according to Matt Vaughn, the Manager of the Life Sciences Computing Group at the University of Texas.

Vaughn participates in research run on the Stampede computing system at the University of Texas' Advanced Computing Center (TACC) in Austin, TX. Stampede is one of the largest computing centers in the world for open science research.4 Scientists submit proposals to the TACC requesting time with the supercomputer to perform calculations related to their research. This creates a backlog of research waiting to be performed; however, a computer running at quantum speed would accelerate complex research, which would be a positive development for cancer researchers who are looking for a faster result that will ultimately benefit their patients' outcomes.

Nolan agrees. “If the slowest aspect of cancer research, which is generally computing time, could be ported to a parallelized system like a quantum computer, it would turn hours of a problem into minutes. Maybe seconds,” he said.

What is a Quantum Computer?

Imagine a computer with the potential to process data millions of times faster than today's fastest machines while operating in a way that the world's top scientists are still attempting to fully understand. This is the intriguing promise of quantum computing; a world where calculations and algorithms are processed by applying the principals of quantum mechanics, a realm of physics that deals with physical phenomena bordering on the stuff of science-fiction. 

What takes place inside a D-Wave quantum computer processor as it computes data is nothing less than strange when compared to traditional computing.  Operating in a helium-cooled environment just above absolute zero, the D-Wave processor has the potential to hit extreme computational speeds by leveraging quantum states of matter that allow a vast number of additional computing routes to be created and work together, almost like virtual clones.5 Within the D-Wave processor, matter can exist in two places at once, and have an effect on nearby matter without coming in contact with it. Simply stated, the D-Wave processor can create something out of nothing to get more work done.

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