Sydney Uni team to develop quantum tech for health applications

Monday, 18 December, 2023

Sydney Uni team to develop quantum tech for health applications

A multidisciplinary team at The University of Sydney Nano Institute (Sydney Nano) has been awarded a contract by US-based non-profit organisation Wellcome Leap to develop useful quantum technology for application in the biological and health sectors. Specifically, the team is aiming to use quantum tech to create new molecules that can treat skin cancers or improve sunscreens.

Quantum for Bio (Q4Bio) is a multimillion-dollar program focused on identifying, developing and demonstrating applications in human health that will benefit from the quantum computers expected to emerge in the next three to five years. Q4Bio has engaged a dozen teams globally, with The University of Sydney the only Australian institution so far awarded a contract.

“We are excited to participate in Wellcome Leap’s bold vision of accelerating the applications of quantum computing in human health applications,” said Dr Tingrei Tan, a co-leader of the team from The University of Sydney School of Physics.

“Our multidisciplinary research aims to address a critical bottleneck in today’s drug development — the inability of conventional computers to accurately predict quantum chemical dynamics in molecules.”

Tan’s team, based in the Sydney Nanoscience Hub, will develop algorithms to simplify and enable accurate quantum simulations that radically improve our modelling of photoactive chemical reactions. These reactions happen at speeds so fast that they are unable to be observed in real time and are vital to processes such as photosynthesis and solar energy as well as for sunscreens and photoactive medications.

Analog quantum simulations allow scientists to slow these processes down by a factor of 100 billion times to take meaningful observations, with the team recently demonstrating this remarkable slowdown in a quantum simulation. As noted by team co-leader Associate Professor Ivan Kassal, from the Sydney School of Chemistry, “Understanding what happens at a molecular level when a cell absorbs light is a potential early application for quantum computers.”

Team co-leader Professor Fernandez Peñas, from the Sydney Medical School, added, “Dermatology has a love/hate relationship with light. Light is both the main cause of skin cancer — ultraviolet light — but also a source of energy to treat some forms of skin cancer — red light in photodynamic therapy — and help with other diseases, using laser light.

“A better understanding of how photoreactions happen should allow us to design innovative molecules that will help to treat diseases or improve sunscreens.”

Tan’s trapped-ion quantum computer in the Quantum Control Laboratory is at the experimental heart of this research. The theory work is being built by Kassal’s team in Chemistry and the end application goals are being designed by Peñas’s team in Medicine.

“The University of Sydney is one of the most suitable institutes in the world to conduct this research,” said Professor Stephen Bartlett, Director of Sydney Nano. “The comprehensiveness of world-class research at the university provides an ideal platform to drive multidisciplinary problem solving to tackle some of the most challenging problems facing humanity.”

Q4Bio has three distinct phases spanning 2.5 years. Phase 1 contracts include funding of up to US$1.5 million to develop quantum algorithms where the quantum computing resources needed should fit within the target resources defined in the program announcement. If successful, participants will proceed to a second phase involving large-scale simulations of the algorithms on high-performance classical computers. Phase 3 will allow for the implementation of the algorithmic solutions on quantum hardware, attracting up to US$2 million in further funding.

Image caption: Professor Pablo Fernandez Peñas, Associate Professor Ivan Kassal and Dr Tingrei Tan in the Sydney Nanoscience Hub. Image credit: Stefanie Zingsheim.

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