Cleveland Clinic, IBM ink quantum computing tech partnership to accelerate health research

Cleveland Clinic and IBM have inked a 10-year partnership to leverage high-performance computing, artificial intelligence and quantum computing technologies to accelerate healthcare and life sciences research.

As part of the tie-up, the tech giant plans to install its first private sector, on-premise quantum computing system in the U.S. at Cleveland Clinic. The hospital also plans to receive the first next-generation IBM 1,000+ qubit quantum system in the coming years, the organization said in a press release.

Financial terms of the partnership were not disclosed.

Cleveland Clinic and IBM plan to develop a center called the Discovery Accelerator, with the aim of fundamentally advancing the pace of discovery in healthcare and life sciences through the use of the tech company's hybrid cloud, including AI and quantum computing technologies. 

Tech companies like IBM, Microsoft and Google are racing to build reliable quantum computers.

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Quantum technology, also known as quantum information technology, seeks to harness the laws of quantum mechanics to build more powerful tools for processing information. Universal quantum computers leverage the quantum mechanical phenomena of superposition and entanglement to create states that scale exponentially with number of qubits, or quantum bits, according to IBM.

Quantum systems are designed to tackle problems currently seen as too complex or experimental in nature for classical computing to handle, IBM says.

IBM launched its quantum system in 2017. The company now has 28 deployed quantum computers on the cloud and partners with more than 100 Fortune 500 companies, academic institutions, national labs and startups as part of its quantum network.

The collaboration with Cleveland Clinic is anticipated to build a robust research and clinical infrastructure to advance big data medical research, discoveries for patient care and novel approaches to public health threats such as the COVID-19 pandemic, Cleveland Clinic executives said in a press release.

Researchers at Cleveland Clinic's Global Center for Pathogen Research and Human Health will use advanced computational technology to generate and analyze data to enhance research in genomics, single-cell transcriptomics, population health, clinical applications, and chemical and drug discovery. 

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The hospital launched the pathogen research center last year to broaden understanding of emerging pathogens—ranging from Zika virus to SARS-CoV-2 (which causes COVID-19)—and to expedite critically needed treatments and vaccines.

Matthew Kull, Cleveland Clinic's chief information officer, said quantum computing has the potential to help accelerate the discovery of new drugs and therapies.

"We know we’re going to see emerging pathogens, and we know there is a large contingent of cancers that are cause by viruses. We want to see these cures come much faster. We want to be able to simulate the cure in a computational environment to accelerate the discovery of therapeutics and treatments for these diseases and shorten that time," he told Fierce Healthcare. "It typically takes 15 years from idea to therapy [for new treatments]. We’d like to shorten that to weeks, if not days."

He added, "Given the power and scale of this partnership that we’re putting in place, I think we’re going to be well on our way to getting there."

Cleveland Clinic and IBM have worked together for decades as the hospital has used the tech giant's cloud, social, mobile and Watson cognitive computing technologies across clinical and administrative operations.

The new tech partnership leverages the knowledge of quantum physicists and computer scientists at IBM and the expertise of Cleveland Clinic's researchers in the areas of quantum chemistry to explore how the technology can advance healthcare and life sciences research, Jeff Welser, chief operating officer at IBM Research, told Fierce Healthcare.

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Advanced computational technology will be key to advancing Cleveland Clinic's focus on personalized medicine, Kull said.

"We believe the technology will help our scientists to sequence and analyze DNA better, which has become an essential element in treating cancer patients with more personalized therapies. As we can understand each individual’s genomic makeup and the ability to create personalized treatments, this is really what we’re looking toward for the future, how can we create that 'N-of-1 of medicine,'" he said.

When it comes to on-premise systems, quantum computing is associated with high maintenance and operational costs, as the systems operate at temperatures close to absolute zero.

Kull said IBM's Q system is fairly self-contained in its glass case, and the cryogenic cooling system occupies a separate small room about the size of a storage closet.

"The cooler itself uses both helium and liquid nitrogen, which need to be resupplied at a regular interval to maintain near absolute zero temperature which equals negative 459.67 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale. The operating costs are primarily power, which are similar to a medium size of server racks in a data center," he said.