Quantum Computing For Personalised Cancer Treatment

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The German Cancer Research Centre plans to use quantum computing to develop individually effective cancer treatment methods

Image: IBM Q System, Fraunhofer

Medical records of cancer patients can often comprise up to 100 terabytes of heterogeneous data, including blood and tumour values, personal indicators, sequencing and treatment data and much more. It is a challenge to manage such a huge database efficiently due to a lack of appropriate processing mechanisms. As a result, the possibility of a personalised treatment approach for each cancer patient remains purely theoretical; most of them receive standard treatments.

With the use of quantum computing, the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ) now plans to change this treatment approach. 

“We want to explore how we can systematically process and use this heterogeneous data with the aid of a quantum computer, so that we can identify new and more targeted options for patients who do not respond so well to immunotherapies. Ultimately, we are asking which patient can benefit from which treatment and how,” says Dr Niels Halama, Head of Department of Translational Immunotherapy at the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ) and Senior Physician at the German National Center for Tumor Diseases. 

From a simulator to a real quantum computer

The DKFZ team had initially carried out some work using other available systems that simulated qubits. However, there is a huge difference when it comes to working on a real quantum computer such as the IBM Q System One. According to Dr Halama, the quantum computer allows you to see how stable and complex things are, and what can be done to avoid pitfalls. 

Based on these benefits, the researchers want to further develop and bring out new ideas via an application-oriented approach. The aim is not just to find out which algorithms are suitable for processing the information in question, but also how error corrections can be optimised further. 

Data protection, speed and flexibility

When working with a quantum computer, three key considerations are data protection, speed and flexibility. Currently, scientists are working with test data. But when real patient data is used in the future, it will be very advantageous that the data on the quantum computer operates under German data protection legislation and remains on site. 

The superior calculation speed of quantum computing (in comparison to conventional computing) is key to quick decision making when it comes to cancer patients. As quantum processors can process data in parallel rather than in succession, they have the potential to analyse huge volumes of data in a fraction of the time that conventional computers require.

Healthy cooperation

The flexible monthly ticket model that the Fraunhofer Competence Network Quantum Computing offers is also an important factor. “It allows us, as an academic institution, to use the system flexibly as and when needed without having to invest huge sums over a long period,” says Dr Halama. “Our collaboration allows us to bridge the gap between theoretical and applied research for the benefit of the patient.”

“We are very pleased to have DKZF as a collaborative partner,” said Prof. Raoul Klingner, Director of Research Management and Governance at the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft. “The use of quantum computing in a field as complex and significant as personalised cancer therapy highlights the potential that quantum computing offers for medicine and numerous other industries.”

It is also expected that the above strategy will help answer questions such as which signalling cascades and biological processes play a role in the disease, how can these be selected for individual treatment and what kind of other problems be solved using quantum computers?


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