Boehringer Ingelheim: A question of time

Quantum leaps


Using quantum computing to accelerate the development of new drugs.


For the simulation of complex molecules, Boehringer Ingelheim CTO Clemens Utschig-Utschig also considers the potential of quantum computing. This way, extensive laboratory experiments may be reduced in the future – and with them the time needed to develop new drugs.

Clemens Utschig-Utschig, Boehringer Ingelheim CTO. © C. H. Boehringer Sohn AG & Co. KG.

Drug development: the long road to approval

The Covid-19 pandemic and its consequences have brought public attention to one industry in particular – the development of new drugs. Suddenly, the entire world was looking at the pharmaceutical industry. Governments and citizens alike placed high hopes that companies would quickly find suitable vaccines – and were finally rewarded after about a year with the first reports of success and approvals.

For laypeople, these months of waiting and anxiety may have felt like an eternity. In relation, however, they represent somewhat of a record: On average, it takes 13 years for a new drug to go through all the development phases and receive its approval. The fact that most Covid-19 vaccines took much less time in comparison is due to the special conditions of the pandemic, which, while able to spread rapidly across the globe, was also researched and combated in an unprecedented shared global effort.


Accelerating drug development through simulations

Until now, pharmaceutical companies have had to rely on extensive and time-consuming laboratory trials to develop and test new active substances. One way to reduce the effort required for such test series is to use computer-based simulations of the molecules on which potential active ingredients (like all things in the physical world) are based. However, while classical computers can still efficiently simulate the dynamics of single atoms, the jump to simulating simple molecules alone considerably increases the required computing time. Simulations of complex molecules, which are relevant for pharmaceutical research, are hardly realisable in an efficient manner under these conditions.

Clemens Utschig-Utschig, Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at Boehringer Ingelheim, thus also counts on the potential of quantum computing to make such simulations possible. After all, the technology may someday enable the calculation of complex molecules’ dynamics within a reasonable amount of time. “We hope that, by using quantum computing, we will one day be able to better describe and simulate chemical systems, such as certain parts of our own cells, or our metabolism, and also understand them better than we do today.”, he explains. With this hope, Utschig-Utschig knows himself in good company. Nobel laureate Richard Feynman already advocated the use of quantum computing for such simulations in 1981: “Nature isn’t classical, damn it, and if you want to make a simulation of nature, you better make it quantum mechanical, and by golly, it’s a wonderful problem, because it doesn’t look easy.”


Fundamental research with strong partners

Clemens Utschig-Utschig too knows that the development of quantum computing-based applications for the simulation of molecules will not be easy, and he makes it clear that, at present, what counts is primarily fundamental research: “In many areas, we lack not only practical possibilities, but also the necessary theoretical foundations.” He expects first applications to be ready in about ten years. That is why it is all the more important that Boehringer Ingelheim and other major German companies have now come together in the newly founded Quantum Technology and Application Consortium (QUTAC) to pool their resources and competences. “Doing Fundamental research alone is good, doing it in cooperation is even better.”, he explains. Many of the companies involved in QUTAC face similar challenges, he says, so it makes sense to work together. In the end, Utschig-Utschig emphasises, it will be worth it, because time is being invested today in the development of quantum technology solutions that could bring significant time savings in drug development later on: “We are looking for a way to be able to develop life-saving and quality-of-life-enhancing drugs more efficiently in the future – so that, in the long run, we will improve the health of human beings and animals alike.” And no effort is too great to achieve this.

Picture © C. H. Boehringer Sohn AG & Co. KG