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Cleveland Clinic and IBM hope their tech partnership could help prevent the next pandemic

Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM, explains what the company is doing to help during the coronavirus crisis. It launched a tool on its Weather Channel app that tracks the outbreak.

Posted: Apr 23, 2021 9:01 PM
Updated: Apr 23, 2021 9:01 PM

After a year in which scientists raced to understand Covid-19 and to develop treatments and vaccines to stop its spread, Cleveland Clinic is partnering with IBM to use next-generation technologies to advance healthcare research — and potentially prevent the next public health crisis.

The two organizations on Tuesday announced the creation of the "Discovery Accelerator," which will apply technologies such as quantum computing and artificial intelligence to pressing life sciences research questions. As part of the partnership, Cleveland Clinic will become the first private-sector institution to buy and operate an on-site IBM quantum computer, called the Q System One. Currently, such machines only exist in IBM labs and data centers.

Quantum computing is expected to expedite the rate of discovery and help tackle problems with which existing computers struggle.

The accelerator is part of Cleveland Clinic's new Global Center for Pathogen Research & Human Health, a facility introduced in January on the heels of a $500 million investment by the clinic, the state of Ohio and economic development nonprofit JobsOhio to spur innovation in the Cleveland area.

The new center is dedicated to researching and developing treatments for viruses and other disease-causing organisms. That will include some research on Covid-19, including why it causes ongoing symptoms (also called "long Covid") for some who have been infected.

"Covid-19 is an example" of how the center and its new technologies will be used, said Dr. Lara Jehi, chief research information officer at the Cleveland Clinic.

"But ... what we want is to prevent the next Covid-19," Jehi told CNN Business. "Or if it happens, to be ready for it so that we don't have to, as a country, put everything on hold and put all of our resources into just treating this emergency. We want to be proactive and not reactive."

The promise of quantum

Quantum computers process information in a fundamentally different way from regular computers, so they will be able to solve problems that today's computers can't. They can, for example, test multiple solutions to a problem at once, making it possible to come up with an answer in a fraction of the time it would take a different machine.

Applied to healthcare research, that capability is expected to be useful for modeling molecules and how they interact, which could accelerate the development of new pharmaceuticals. Quantum computers could also improve genetic sequencing to help with cancer research, and design more efficient, effective clinical trials for new drugs, Jehi said.

Ultimately, Cleveland Clinic and IBM expect that applying quantum and other advanced technologies to healthcare research will speed up the rate of discovery and product development. Currently, the average time from scientific discovery in a lab to getting a drug to a patient is around 17 years, according to the National Institutes of Health.

"We really need to accelerate," Jehi said. "What we learned with the Covid-19 pandemic is that we cannot afford, as a human race, to just drop everything and focus on one emergency at a time."

Part of the problem: It takes a long time to process and analyze the massive amount of data generated by healthcare, research and trials — something that AI, quantum computing and high-performance computing (a more powerful version of traditional computing) can help with. Quantum computers do that by "simulating the world," said Dario Gil, director of IBM Research.

"Instead of conducting physical experiments, you're conducting them virtually, and because you're doing them virtually through computers, it's much faster," Gil said.

What this means for IBM

For IBM, the partnership represents an important proof point for commercial applications of quantum computing. IBM currently offers access to quantum computers via the cloud to 134 institutions, including Goldman Sachs and Daimler, but building a dedicated machine on-site for one organization is a big step forward.

"What we're seeing is the emergency of quantum as a new industry within the world of information technology and computing," Gil said. "What we're seeing here in the context of Cleveland Clinic is ... a partner that says, 'I want the entire capacity of a full quantum computer to be [dedicated] to my research mission."

The partnership also includes a training element that will help educate people on how to use quantum computing for research — which is likely to further grow the ecosystem around the new technology.

Cleveland Clinic and IBM declined to detail the cost of the quantum system being installed on the clinic's campus, but representatives from both organizations called it a "significant investment." Quantum computers are complex machines to build and maintain because they must be stored at extremely cold temperatures (think: 200 times colder than outer space).

The Cleveland Clinic will start by using IBM's quantum computing cloud offering while waiting for its on-premises machine to be built, which is expected to take about a year. IBM plans to later install at the clinic a more advanced version of its quantum computer once it is developed in the coming years.

Jehi, the Cleveland Clinic research lead, acknowledged that quantum computing technology is still nascent, but said the organization wanted to get in on the ground floor.

"It naturally needs nurturing and growing so that we can figure out what are its applications in healthcare," Jehi said. "It was important to us that we design those applications and we learn them ourselves, rather than waiting for others to develop them."

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