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Quantum leap for biology

Photo by Filipe Dos Santos Mendes on Unsplash

A new $25 million institute in Chicago will be tasked with using quantum technology to bring about paradigm-shifting breakthroughs in biology.

Supported by Harvard University, the snappily named Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Quantum Sensing for Biophysics and Bioengineering (QuBBE) will be based at the University of Chicago, in partnership with Chicago State University, and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

For me the most exciting thing is the questions this technology can answer that we haven’t thought of yet.

Peter Maurer

“This institute is designed specifically to foster cross-disciplinary collaborations that are not incremental, but rather paradigm-shifting,” said Greg Engel, professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago and the new institute’s director. “It’s rapidly becoming clear that quantum sensing could be transformative in the next phases of biology research, and Chicago is perfectly positioned as a home for that future, with a nexus of academic institutions, national laboratories, industries and a growing quantum workforce.”

The institute will investigate ways to integrate quantum sensing technologies, alongside traditional imagining techniques, to generate more detail on what is going on inside cells.

“For example, when an immune cell comes in contact with a pathogen, we know that single  molecule-level interactions influence how the cell deforms and adheres and kills whatever its target is; but it’s not well-understood, because sensing and measuring what those single molecules are doing in real time, in such a small space, is so hard,” explains Allison Squires, Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Molecular Engineering at UChicago and a member of the new institute. “If we can put a quantum sensor right there to directly read out what’s happening, that would be a game-changer.”

Phrases like quantum science, or quantum computing, certainly conjure up images of a brave new world, one better equipped to solve the toughest challenges.

“For me the most exciting thing is the questions this technology can answer that we haven’t thought of yet,” added Peter Maurer, assistant professor of molecular engineering at UChicago. “We know of amazing potential applications, but I think probably the biggest ones are still to be discovered and that’s what excites me most: actually finding those applications and realising them.”


Precision medical treatments are going to transform the future of healthcare. Among the innovations that will enable this are the gene-editing technologies that can reprogramme defective genes. And this particular technology took a giant step forward today after Stanford researchers announced they have engineered a ‘mini’ CRISPR genome editing system. The bigger version is often referred to as molecular scissors but the new mini version has been likened to a Swiss Army knife. The smaller size is a breakthrough that could make it easier to treat ‘ailments, including eye disease, organ and brain degeneration, and genetic diseases more generally’, areas traditional CRISPR systems are less suited to.

“This ability to engineer these systems has been desired in the field since the early days of CRISPR, and I feel like we did our part to move toward that reality,” said Stanley Qi, assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University. “And this engineering approach can be so broadly helpful. That’s what excites me – opening the door on new possibilities.”


Meanwhile, the world of biotechnology will take centre stage in Vienna next month, when the Austrian capital hosts the European Forum for Industrial Biotechnology and Bioeconomy (EFIB). It is the 14th edition of the event, and Innovators Magazine has been a media partner for about half of them, and we are proud to be a partner again this year.

EFIB brings together the diverse range of stakeholders working in the sector, to catalyse new innovations, share ideas, showcase startups, and develop solutions to some of the world’s biggest challenges. There will be over 110 organisations taking part open to partnership opportunities, 20 leading bioeconomy SMEs in the Start-up Village, and dozens of speakers from across the world of biotechnology.

Organised by EuropaBio, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, it will be a moment when those in the sector are asked to ‘vote for the most significant biotech from the last quarter century’. There are lots of amazing breakthroughs to choose from, including the first COVID vaccine. Future innovations in the areas of biophysics and bioengineering will be expected from the team at QuBBE, and will be shared on these pages.

Taking place on 6-7 October, EFIB is the goto annual meeting of biotech innovators. Register today to be part of it.

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Written By

Susan is the co-founder of Innovators Magazine and a consultant for OnePoint5Media. Susan is also a member of the UNFCCC-led Resilience Frontiers Nexus group and the Chair of the APOPO Foundation UK board.


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