Digging Deep into Drug Discovery using Virtual Reality
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Digging Deep into Drug Discovery using Virtual Reality

By Pharma Tech Outlook | Thursday, September 05, 2019

Owing to its ability to manipulate and analyze the three-dimensional structures of proteins and molecules, VR is increasingly getting incorporated into drug discovery processes.

FREMONT, CA: Virtual reality (VR) has already received its fair share of popularity in the gaming world. However, there has been a significant change since the incorporation of technology for commercial purposes. Currently, VR is finding its application in enterprise applications as well as in industries such as construction. However, compared to other emerging technologies, VR is making deeper inroads into healthcare. Such has been its impact that several researchers and companies are supporting the use of VR for drug discovery.

Drug development is a lengthy, costly, and difficult business. As per the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development (CSDD), bringing a new drug to the market requires over $2.6 billion. The average duration from the patent filing to the launch of the product is around a dozen years. Such challenges have resulted in the biotech and pharmaceutical industry to adopt technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) to foster the process for drug discovery.

VR for Drug Discovery

Although the use of VR to discover new drugs is a new concept, most of the research has been carried out in the academic setting. The idea is to use the old lock-and-key analogy to demonstrate why VR could turn out as a standard tool in drug pipelines in the future. In case of drug discovery, scientists are trying to find the right molecule with a particular shape that will respond to a protein target in the body for some therapies, or virus or the bacteria for others. Thus drug discovery is partly about developing the right key for treating a disease or a medical condition. VR enables the researchers to manipulate and analyze the three-dimensional structures of proteins and molecules at life-size scales, rather than clicking and dragging with a computer mouse on a desktop computer.

Based on a paper published in the journal “Expert Opinion on Drug Discovery,” the experts suggested that VR will result in a revolution in pharmaceutical development. However, they added that there were still obstacles that lay in the path of extensive and successful application of VR to drug development which included the demand for further enhancements in the available software and hardware. The researchers also emphasized the positive aspects saying that with advancements in technology, the barriers will diminish paving the way for better use cases of VR technologies in drug discovery.

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Pharma Realizes the Potential of VR in Drug Discovery

As per a paper published in the Journal of Molecular Graphics and Modelling, researchers proposed an intuitive virtual world for manipulating, viewing, and modifying macromolecular and chemical structures in a fully collaborative and immersive 3D environment for the purpose of drug discovery. With the help of the collaborative VR platform, scientists can physically interact with a molecule in a region which is not restricted by space enabling users to touch a molecule as if it were an object. However, unlike an everyday object, force fields can be altered in the virtual environment, thereby transporting atomic-level physics to the macroscale.

Molecular Manipulation via VR

As per a 2018 research paper, the scientists explained a series of molecular manipulation experiments where participants threaded methane via a nanotube or tied a protein in a knot. They concluded that the VR environment was almost 12 times faster than conventional interfaces like desktop or using tinker toys, especially for developing small-drug molecules. While drug discovery is one application if VR, its other uses cases are in synthetic biology and other sectors that crave 3D structures on the nanoscale. The most interesting aspect of the technology is that although it is still emerging, it has shown some real-world value.

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