IBM has Unveiled a Brand-New Quantum Computer

Thousands of miles away from the company’s quantum computation center in Poughkeepsie, New York, IBM is bringing quantum technologies out of Big Blue’s labs and directly to partners around the world. A Quantum System One, IBM‘s flagship integrated superconducting quantum computer, is now available on-premises in the Kawasaki Business Incubation Center in Kawasaki City, for Japanese researchers to run their quantum experiments in fields ranging from chemistry to finance.

Most customers to date can only access IBM‘s System One over the cloud, by connecting to the company’s quantum computation center in Poughkeepsie. Recently, the company unveiled the very first quantum computer that was physically built outside of the computation center’s data centers, when the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany acquired a System One. The system that has now been deployed to Japan is therefore IBM‘s second quantum computer that is located outside of the US.

The announcement comes as part of a long-standing relationship with Japanese organizations. In 2019, IBM and the University of Tokyo inaugurated the Japan-IBM Quantum Partnership, a national agreement inviting universities and businesses across the country to engage in quantum research. It was agreed then that a Quantum System One would eventually be installed at an IBM facility in Japan.

Building on the partnership, Big Blue and the University of Tokyo launched the Quantum Innovation Initiative Consortium last year to further bring together organizations working in the field of quantum. With this, the Japanese government has made it clear that it is keen to be at the forefront of the promising developments that quantum technologies are expected to bring about.

Leveraging some physical properties that are specific to quantum mechanics, quantum computers could one day be capable of carrying out calculations that are impossible to run on the devices that are used today, known as a classical computers.


How to Clear Brain Plaques with Light and Oxygen to Prevent Alzheimer’s

A small, light-activated molecule recently tested in mice represents a new approach to eliminating clumps of amyloid protein found in the brains of Alzheimer’s disease patients. If perfected in humans, the technique could be used as an alternative approach to immunotherapy and used to treat other diseases caused by similar amyloids. Researchers injected the molecule directly into the brains of live mice with Alzheimer’s disease and then used a specialized probe to shine light into their brains for 30 minutes each day for one week. Chemical analysis of the mouse brain tissue showed that the treatment significantly reduced amyloid protein. Results from additional experiments using human brain samples donated by Alzheimer’s disease patients supported the possibility of future use in humans.

The importance of our study is developing this technique to target the amyloid protein to enhance clearance of it by the immune system,” said Yukiko Hori, a lecturer at the University of Tokyo and co-first author of the research recently published in Brain. The small molecule that the research team developed is known as a photo-oxygenation catalyst. It appears to treat Alzheimer’s disease via a two-step process.

First, the catalyst destabilizes the amyloid plaques. Oxygenation, or adding oxygen atoms, can make a molecule unstable by changing the chemical bonds holding it together. Laundry detergents or other cleaners known as “oxygen bleach” use a similar chemical principle. The catalyst is designed to target the folded structure of amyloid and likely works by cross-linking specific portions called histidine residues. The catalyst is inert until it is activated with near-infrared light, so in the future, researchers imagine that the catalyst could be delivered throughout the body by injection into the bloodstream and targeted to specific areas using light.

Second, the destabilized amyloid is then removed by microglia, immune cells of the brain that clear away damaged cells and debris outside healthy cells. Using mouse cells growing in a dish, researchers observed microglia engulfing oxygenated amyloid and then breaking it down in acidic compartments inside the cells. “Our catalyst binds to the amyloid-specific structure, not to a unique genetic or amino acid sequence, so this same catalyst can be applied to other amyloid depositions,” said Professor Taisuke Tomita, who led the project at the University of Tokyo.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology estimates that each year in the U.S., 4,000 people are diagnosed with diseases caused by amyloid outside of the brain, collectively known as amyloidosis. The photo-oxygenation catalyst should be capable of removing amyloid protein, regardless of when or where it formed in the body. Although some existing Alzheimer’s disease treatments can slow the formation of new amyloid plaques, eliminating existing plaques is especially important in Alzheimer’s disease because amyloid begins aggregating years before symptoms appear.


Powerful New Tool Against Cancer

All cells in the human body have a shelf-life, but those of the cancerous variety use some cunning trickery to outlive their expiry dates and continue spreading throughout the body. Scientists at the University of Tokyo have developed a synthetic version of a fungal compound that could help swing things back in our favor, by reactivating a missing gene that would normally drive these sinister cells to self-destruction.

As our cells fulfill their roles and edge towards the end of their lives, they undergo a form of programmed death called apoptosis, clearing the way for fresher and healthier cells. But with the help of genetic mutations, cancer cells are able to avoid this fate and go on multiplying to form tumors.

Targeting this mechanism and initiating apoptosis in cancer cells has been a major focus for researchers in the field, with compounds in olive oil and others that flush them with salt a couple of techniques that have shown promise in recent times. And in a naturally occurring compound found in the fungus species Ascochyta, scientists uncovered another exciting possibility.

Previous experiments had shown this compound, called FE399, could trigger apoptosis in cancer cells in vitro, by reinstating the self-destruct gene that drives the programmed death process. The compound had shown particular promise against colorectal cancer, but the complex nature of the compound meant that reproducing it in meaningful quantities was a tall order. Extracting natural versions of FE399 from the fungus was not a viable option, setting up a significant roadblock for use of this promising anti-cancer compound. But the University of Tokyo team was determined to find a way forward, and set out to develop a complete, synthetic version of the compound to pave the way for mass production.


We wanted to create a lead compound that could treat colon cancer, and we aimed to do this through the total synthesis of FE399,” says Professor Isamu Shiina, study author.

The team started by identifying the complex structure of the compound. A long process of trial and error followed until, in what the researchers describe as a major breakthrough, they produced a trio of spots on a plate bearing exactly the same chemical signature as FE399.

We hope that this newly produced compound can provide an unprecedented treatment option for patients with colorectal cancer, and thus improve the overall outcomes of the disease and ultimately improve their quality of life,” says Professor Shiina.

The research was published in the journal European Journal of Organic Chemistry.


Nanomachines To Deliver Cancer Drugs to Hard-to-reach Areas

In a recent study in mice, researchers found a way to deliver specific drugs to parts of the body that are exceptionally difficult to access. Their Y-shaped block catiomer (YBC) binds with certain therapeutic materials forming a package 18 nanometers wide. The package is less than one-fifth the size of those produced in previous studies, so can pass through much smaller gaps. This allows YBCs to slip through tight barriers in cancers of the brain or pancreas.

The fight against cancer is fought on many fronts. One promising field is gene therapy, which targets genetic causes of diseases to reduce their effect. The idea is to inject a nucleic acid-based drug into the bloodstream — typically small interfering RNA (siRNA) — which binds to a specific problem-causing gene and deactivates it. However, siRNA is very fragile and needs to be protected within a nanoparticle or it breaks down before reaching its target.

siRNA can switch off specific gene expressions that may cause harm. They are the next generation of biopharmaceuticals that could treat various intractable diseases, including cancer,” explained Associate Professor Kanjiro Miyata of the University of Tokyo, who jointly supervised the study. “However, siRNA is easily eliminated from the body by enzymatic degradation or excretion. Clearly a new delivery method was called for.”

Presently, nanoparticles are about 100 nanometers wide, one-thousandth the thickness of paper. This is small enough to grant them access to the liver through the leaky blood vessel wall. However some cancers are harder to reach. Pancreatic cancer is surrounded by fibrous tissues and cancers in the brain by tightly connected vascular cells. In both cases the gaps available are much smaller than 100 nanometers. Miyata and colleagues created an siRNA carrier small enough to slip through these gaps in the tissues.

We used polymers to fabricate a small and stable nanomachine for the delivery of siRNA drugs to cancer tissues with a tight access barrier,” said Miyata. “The shape and length of component polymers is precisely adjusted to bind to specific siRNAs, so it is configurable.”


Flying Robot

If your robot doesn’t weigh anything, you don’t have to worry about falling over, Researchers from the University of Tokyo have developed a quadrotor with legs called Aerial-Biped. Designed primarily for entertainment, Aerial-Biped enables “a richer physical expression” by automatically generating walking gaits in sync with its quadrotor body.

Until someone invents a robot that can moonwalk, you can model a gait that appears normal by simply making sure that the velocity of a foot is zero as long as it’s in contact with the ground. The Aerial-Biped robot learns how to do this through reinforcement learning in a physics simulator, and the policy transfers to the robot well enough that the legs can appear to walk as the quadrotor moves.


The lead author Azumi Maekawa from the University of Tokyo explained: . “We were inspired by bipedal robots that use invisible force to get stability, such as Magdan, created by Tomotaka Takahashi (an electromagnet on the bottom of its feet lets it walk on a metal plate), and BALLU (which uses buoyancy of a helium-filled balloon). The foot trajectory generation method is based on the assumption that one of the key features of walking (or at least the appearance of walking) is that the velocity of the foot in contact with the ground is zero. The goal is to develop a robot that has the ability to display the appearance of bipedal walking with dynamic mobility, and to provide a new visual experience. 


A self-powered heart monitor taped to the skin

Scientists in Japan have developed a human-friendly, ultra-flexible organic sensor powered by sunlight, which acts as a self-powered heart monitor. Previously, they developed a flexible photovoltaic cell that could be incorporated into textiles. In this study, they directly integrated a sensory device, called an organic electrochemical transistor—a type of electronic device that can be used to measure a variety of biological functions—into a flexible organic solar cell. Using it, they were then able to measure the heartbeats of rats and humans under bright light conditions.

Self-powered devices that can be fit directly on human skin or tissue have great potential for medical applications. They could be used as physiological sensors for the real-time  or the real-time monitoring of heart or brain function in the human body. However, practical realization has been impractical due to the bulkiness of batteries and insufficient power supply, or due to noise interference from the electrical supply, impeding conformability and long-term operation.

The key requirement for such devices is a stable and adequate energy supply. A key advance in this study, published in Nature, is the use of a nano-grating surface on the light absorbers of the solar cell, allowing for high photo-conversion efficiency (PCE) and light angle independency. Thanks to this, the researchers were able to achieve a PCE of 10.5 percent and a high power-per-weight ratio of 11.46 watts per gram, approaching the “magic number” of 15 percent that will make organic photovoltaics competitive with their silicon-based counterparts.

To demonstrate a practical application, sensory devices called organic electrochemical transistors were integrated with organic solar cells on an ultra-thin (1 μm) substrate, to allow the self-powered detection of heartbeats either on the skin or to record electrocardiographic (ECG) signals directly on the heart of a rat. They found that the device worked well at a lighting level of 10,000 lux, which is equivalent to the light seen when one is in the shade on a clear sunny day, and experienced less noise than similar devices connected to a battery, presumably because of the lack of electric wires.

According to Kenjiro Fukuda of the RIKEN Center for Emergent Matter Science, “This is a nice step forward in the quest to make self-powered medical monitoring devices that can be placed on human tissue. There are some important remaining tasks, such as the development of flexible power storage devices, and we will continue to collaborate with other groups to produce practical devices. Importantly, for the current experiments we worked on the analog part of our device, which powers the device and conducts the measurement. There is also a digital silicon-based portion, for the transmission of data, and further work in that area will also help to make such devices practical.

The research was carried out by RIKEN in collaboration with researchers from the University of Tokyo.