A man wearing a quantum brain scanner

Four ways quantum technologies are advancing the future of healthcare

(1) Transforming diagnosis and detection in healthcare with quantum sensing

Engineers and physicists at the UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing are developing a new generation of magnetic systems to improve our understanding of everything from basic cognition to dementia and ADHD.

Through using Optically Pumped Magnetometers (OPMs), Hub researchers have created the first wearable MEG system which permits free movement during scanning.  This can be placed directly on the scalp, closer to the brain, enhancing the accuracy of signal detection five-fold. A wearable system imposes less restriction on movement by the subject and avoids the high installation and running costs of a conventional MEG system. This technology will enable detailed research into brain conditions such as Dementia, Cerebrovascular Disease and Parkinson’s.

Three years after Hub researchers at the University of Nottingham published a ground-breaking paper in Nature on non-invasive imaging techniques to investigate brain function, Dr Elena Boto and the academic team in Nottingham, along with David Woolger at Magnetic Shields Ltd, set up Cerca Magnetics Ltd, a spin-out company capitalising on this ground-breaking research which aims to bring wearable quantum-enabled brain scanners to both a research and clinical commercial market. Since launching, Cerca successfully installed its OPM-MEG system at the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in Toronto for ground-breaking research into autism, as well as Young Epilepsy to revolutionise the diagnostic experience for children with Epilepsy.

(2) Quantum computing as a healthcare tool

Just over 50 years since the release of the first commercial microprocessor, computing is about to take another important step. In the UK’s Quantum Computing and Simulation Hub, a collaboration between 17 universities, researchers are working to develop quantum computers that will revolutionise every aspect of our lives.

While the technologies being worked on now are very much in their infancy it is already possible to imagine some of the advances fully-fledged quantum computers may bring to healthcare in the future.

One exciting area in which quantum computing may make advances is the development of new drugs. While existing digital computers make valiant attempts to mimic the complex processes we find in nature, the advanced simulations required to understand how compounds interact at a molecular level are beyond their reach.  Quantum computing and simulation potentially offer the tools to make massive breakthroughs in this field.

The potential of quantum computing also extends beyond discovering new drugs. The vast processing power these new machines are expected to offer may eventually even give us the chance to manage our health at a personal level, providing treatments tailored to an individual based on genetic and environmental factors, alongside more traditional measurements. While these possibilities are some way off, the work taking place in the UK now to develop quantum computers is the first step towards this exciting future.

(3) Future proofing cyber security for the healthcare sector with quantum communications

Advances in quantum computing pose a real threat to current encryption techniques underpinning the world’s cyber security infrastructure, and in fact, data could be intercepted and downloaded now, ready to be decrypted later. Any breaches in cyber security resulting in the leaking of any confidential patient data could have major legal and financial implications, risking the operations of essential healthcare services. It is therefore imperative that healthcare providers and suppliers act now to protect their data and communications.

To future proof-cyber security, researchers at the Quantum Communications Hub are developing quantum networking technologies to demonstrate that quantum secure communications can operate in the real world alongside conventional communications infrastructure. The UK’s first quantum network, the UKQN, was launched in 2018 by the Hub and provides a secure link spanning 410km, connecting Bristol to Cambridge. The UKQN was subsequently expanded with the launch of the UKQNtel in 2019. This network extends the UKQN by 125km to Ipswich, and uses previously installed standard commercial grade optical fibre, providing a testbed for new quantum secure communications technologies and systems and paving the way for future commercialisation of quantum communications technologies.

Once quantum networks are implemented, healthcare providers and suppliers will be able to trust that sensitive data can be transferred up and down the country completely securely, without the worry of interception and decryption. There is also the possibility for healthcare providers to install their own small-scale local quantum networks, facilitating the secure transfer of data internally across medical campuses.

(4) Revolutionising biomedical imaging

Quantum imaging is an emerging approach proving vital to achieving society’s healthcare needs of tomorrow.  At QuantIC, the UK Hub in Quantum Enhanced Imaging, researchers are working together with industry to deliver biological imaging technology using new quantum-inspired effects. The research has shown promising capabilities while simultaneously reducing device costs and rapidly improving accessibility for patients.

Pulse oximeters are among the most common optical devices for monitoring blood oxygenation and they played a critical role during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pulse oximeters work by measuring the transmission of light through the patient’s fingertips and requires calibration based on skin tone and finger anatomy.  However, this calibration is not suitable for everyone and often provides less accurate results in patients with darker skin tones or smaller than average fingertips.

QuantIC researchers, in partnership with semiconductor manufacturer Elmos, are working to develop an oximeter that provides accurate results no matter the skin tone or anatomy size. The proposed device works on the travel time of light as well as its transmission, and measurements are made possible due to the extremely sensitive quantum detectors. The introduction an additional travel time measurement removes any patient calibration.

Imaging through the human body with visible light is another goal for QuantIC’s leading research teams, who are aiming to quantum light-in-flight techniques, making imaging through tissue possible. This will replace expensive and limited MRI and X-Ray machines with hand-held portable devices. The pioneering team are due to present their exciting first results later in the year.