Quantum tech for health: Sydney team wins Wellcome Leap contract

22 November 2023
Unlocking ultrafast chemistry to design future medicines
A multidisciplinary team at Sydney Nano from the Sydney Medical School, Physics and Chemistry is using emerging quantum technology to explore new molecules to treat disease.
Professor Pablo Fernandez Peñas (left), Associate Professor Ivan Kassal and Dr Tingrei Tan.

Professor Pablo Fernandez Peñas (left), Associate Professor Ivan Kassal and Dr Tingrei Tan in the Sydney Nanoscience Hub. Photo: Stefanie Zingsheim

A team at the University of Sydney Nano Institute led by Dr Tingrei Tan 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.

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 awarded a contract.

The Sydney team is aiming to use quantum tech to develop new molecules that can treat skin cancers or improve sunscreens.

Dr Tan said: “We are excited to participate in Wellcome Leap’s bold vision of accelerating the applications of quantum computing in human health applications.

“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.”

His team, based in the Sydney Nanoscience Hub, will pioneer quantum solutions to tackle one of the most challenging problems in computational drug discovery. It 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 they are unable to be observed in real-time. They are vital to processes such as photosynthesis and solar energy, but also 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. The team recently published research in Nature Chemistry demonstrating for the first time this remarkable slowdown in a quantum simulation.

The leadership of this multidisciplinary team includes Dr Tan in the School of Physics, Associate Professor Ivan Kassal in the School of Chemistry, both in the Faculty of Science, and Professor Pablo Fernandez Peñas in the Sydney Medical School in the Faculty of Medicine and Health.

Associate Professor Kassal said: “Understanding what happens at a molecular level when a cell absorbs light, is a potential early application for quantum computers.

“Our joint research could unlock a whole new approach to understanding and treating disease, and to design new drugs. Our team will tackle these wicked problems by bringing together multidisciplinary expertise in quantum technology and chemistry together with medical researchers.”

Professor Fernandez Peñas, Head of Dermatology at Westmead Hospital in Sydney, said: “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 photo-reactions happen should allow us to design innovative molecules that will help to treat diseases or improve sunscreens.”

Dr 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 Associate Professor Kassal’s team in Chemistry and the end application goals are being designed by Professor Fernandes Peñas’ team in Medicine.

Quantum technology, still in its infancy, promises to revolutionise a range of fields, including cryptography, materials science and drug design.

Director of Sydney Nano and a quantum theorist, Professor Stephen Bartlett, said:

“The University of Sydney is one of the most suitable institutes in the world to conduct this research. 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.”

The Quantum for Bio program has three distinct phases spanning 2.5 years. Phase 1 contracts include funding of up to $US1.5 million ($A2.3 million) to develop quantum algorithms where the quantum computing resources needed (number of qubits and program depth) 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 $US2 million in further funding.

The University of Sydney has one of the broadest and deepest quantum technology programs globally, with world-class experts in quantum theory, the development of quantum hardware and software.

The University is a founding member of the Sydney Quantum Academy.

Since 2017 the University has been home to the Sydney Microsoft Quantum laboratory, led by Professor David Reilly.

Also in 2017, Professor Michael Biercuk used research developed at the University to launch Q-CTRL, Australia’s first venture-capital-backed quantum start-up.

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