Article updated on 6 September 2021 by Cvetelin Vasilev
Quantum physics has the potential to revolutionize many aspects of everyday life, and medicine and healthcare are no exception. The laws of quantum physics define the human body as a quantum system, from the smallest vibrations and energy units that communicate with each other. Quantum physics could be the key to solving the current issues in healthcare and bring in a new era of integrative medicines: utilizing the complex rules of quantum mechanics, scientists aim to make medicine faster, less painful, and more personalized.
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Quantum technology could change how we think about healthcare and medical data, even how we view our biology. Several cell processes occur at the nanoscale, in the domain of atoms and subatomic particles - the realm of quantum. At this scale, matter ceases to behave according to the laws of classical physics and instead starts displaying unique and often counterintuitive properties of quantum mechanics.
Scientists hope to utilize these unusual properties to develop medical tools, diagnostics, and treatments that are incredibly precise and ultra-personalized, tools that will ultimately improve and lengthen lives. Using quantum mechanics in medicine could provide disease detection in the early stages or highlight risks of disease before they manifest themselves.
Improving the Sensitivity of Magnetic Resonance Imaging
Bio-barcode assays, a relatively new method developed by scientists, could improve disease screening and treatment. Gold nanoparticles are employed to detect biomarkers in the blood and can be visualized using MRI machines; their unique quantum properties enable them to attach to disease-fighting cells.
Optimized imaging protocols can be applied to enhance the resolution of existing MRI scanners. A research team at Centro Atómico Bariloche in Argentina, led by Dr. Gonzalo Alvarez, employed quantum information theory to investigate the limiting factors that hinder the existing MRI scanner. The researchers developed an advanced MRI imaging protocol that dramatically reduces acquisition time and allows quantitative microstructure imaging at the sub-cellular level (resolving axon structures approximately 0.1–20 μm in diameter) with the existing modern clinical instruments.
Single Cell Manipulation Using Quantum Nanodiamonds
Some of the tools used to study quantum phenomena can also be utilized to develop a new generation of medical sensing and imaging applications. A novel technique involving nanoscale diamond particles is under development at the Quantum Optics Laboratory of Harvard University.
Professor of Physics Mikhail Lukin and his team incorporate single-atom defects in the nanodiamonds, exhibiting quantum mechanical behavior under ambient conditions. When incorporated into living cells, these nanodiamonds could be used to measure and control the temperature locally inside the cells. As a proof-of-concept, Prof. Lukin's team used a laser to control the temperature of the quantum particles very precisely, to the point where they could selectively accelerate the development of different cells.
Smaller is Better
If you have a needle phobia, the old saying that smaller is better might ring true. Researchers at the University of York have designed a patch that replaces a single syringe with many little polymer nanofilaments that deliver medication through hair follicles. Nanject is capable of delivering cancer drugs without harming healthy cells.
A similar concept, called Nanopatch and developed by Prof. Mark Kendall at Queensland University in Australia, uses nanoparticles coated in antigens that can be introduced into the bloodstream. Here, they can bind to cancer cells. An MRI scanner is then used to heat the nanoparticles, which then destroy cancer cells; when the treatment is over, the nanoparticles cool down and can be removed without harming the patient.
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Quantum Technology Can Help with Heart Condition Diagnostics
Researchers from the Department of Physics and Astronomy at University College London, led by Prof. Ferruccio Renzoni, have adapted a quantum sensing technique to image the conductivity levels of live heart tissues at an unprecedented level of sensitivity. Conductivity was monitored using Rubidium-based quantum sensors, which Prof. Renzoni's team developed specifically to image live tissue accurately and consistently over several days.
The ability to detect conductivity at less than one Siemens per meter showed a 50-times improvement compared to other methods. The researchers demonstrated that their new approach is sensitive and stable enough to be used as imaging diagnostics for atrial fibrillation. Currently, diagnosis can only occur by using an electrocardiogram during an episode.
Quantum Computing in Medicine
Pharmaceutical and biomedical companies employ convolutional neural networks to screen over 100 million potential drug compounds daily. Quantum computing could offer the possibility of 10 000-times faster drug candidate testing, thus reducing the months-long process to a single day.
DNA sequencing can also be achieved at a quicker rate; quantum computers could help solve other big data problems. Faster genetic analysis could lead to more efficient screening for genetic diseases and help design personalized medicine based on an individual's genetic composition.
Quantum computing can dramatically improve data security through quantum data encryption. This technology could ensure high levels of security for medical data, protecting them from unauthorized access. Companies like ID Quantique, which already utilize quantum entanglement to provide security to banks and governments, are exploring the potential use of quantum encryption in the healthcare industry.
Quantum physics has the potential to transform medicine and healthcare; by studying and utilizing small-scale matter, scientists may have the ability to make healthcare quicker and less painful. Furthermore, it could pave the way for more personalized medicine.
References and Further Reading
University College London. (2020) New quantum technology could help diagnose and treat heart condition [Online] ScienceDaily. Available at: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/03/200331130059.htm [Accessed on 27 August 2021].
National Scientific and Technical Research Council - Argentina. (2020) Scientists use quantum physics to enhance medical imaging [Online] Conicet. Available at: https://www.conicet.gov.ar/scientists-use-quantum-physics-to-enhance-medical-imaging/?lan=en [Accessed on 27 August 2021].
Glenn, D., et al. (2015) Single-cell magnetic imaging using a quantum diamond microscope. Nat. Methods 12, 736–738. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1038/nmeth.3449 [Accessed on 27 August 2021].
Choi, J., et al. (2020) Probing and manipulating embryogenesis via nanoscale thermometry and temperature control. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 117 (26) 14636-14641. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1922730117 [Accessed on 27 August 2021].
P. Drouin. (2013) Quantum Physics: A New Scientific Foundation for Integrative Medicine [Online] Quantum University. Available at: https://quantumuniversity.com/integrative-medicine/quantum-physics-integrative-medicine [Accessed on 27 August 2021].
Medica Magazine. (2013) Non-invasive Whole-body Analysis of Tomorrow [Online] Available at: https://www.medica-tradefair.com/ [Accessed on 27 August 2021].
S. Kouzmine. (2013) 4 Ways That Quantum Technology Could Transform Health Care [Online] Fast Company. Available at: https://www.fastcompany.com/3016530/4-ways-that-quantum-technology-could-transform-health-care [Accessed on 27 August 2021].