Virtual Reality in Drug Discovery: More Useful Than You Probably Think

by Andrii Buvailo        Biopharma insight

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Using virtual reality (VR) for manipulating 3D models of small molecules and large biomolecules in the context of drug design is an interesting and emerging technological opportunity.

Image credit: Thinkhubstudio, iStock

Image credit: Thinkhubstudio, iStock

One notable company that is focused on pharmaceutical applications of VR is California-based Nanome, founded in 2015. In one study in 2020, researchers applied Nanome’s VR technology to select and analyze 10 drug candidates that target the SARS-CoV-2 main protease for the first time. These candidates were generated by Hong Kong-based Insilico Medicine, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) company. Nanome’s technology allowed medicinal chemists to collaborate in real time, exploring protein pockets, molecular conformations and other intricate aspects of the protein-ligand complex of interest. (Notably, Insilico Medicine just announced a follow-up of this project -- the nomination of a new drug candidate to treat COVID-19. The newly nominated drug candidate is a novel potent inhibitor of 3CL protease, an essential protein for the coronavirus replication).

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Image credit: Nanome

Other examples of using VR for practical research include C4X Discovery, a drug discovery company that adopted virtual reality in its in-house workflow. Their technology “4Sight” enables visualization of the results from molecular dynamic experiments, giving scientists the possibility to observe the spatial motions of the molecular structures. 4Sight is an important component of the drug design tech stack at C4X Discovery.

Interactive Scientific from Bristol is another company advancing VR for drug discovery and other scientific applications. The company estimated that by using their molecular visualizer, iSciCOLLAB, created for diverse teams who need to very quickly develop shared knowledge and understanding around molecular R&D. Users estimate that 90% of project time can be saved with effective use of iSciCOLLAB. Teams that are geographically diverse can all meet around the same molecular simulations.

Pharmaceutical giants, such as Novartis and Pfizer, are also exploring how to integrate virtual reality into research workflow to improve collaborative and educational aspects. 

One notable example of the usability of VR for the drug design comes from the academic world -- a visualization software from Ferrin Lab, UCSF, called ChimeraX, allows for viewing the structures of proteins in the virtual reality environment and, for instance, making sense of cancer-causing mutations.

In conclusion, virtual reality is gaining traction in the drug discovery space, mainly due to its capability to mediate teamwork and efficient collaboration in the scientific environment, with feature-rich spatially complex objects. This allows researchers to manipulate molecular structures in a completely new way, collaborate in a more straightforward way, and tunnel more creativity into the process. We are in the early days of VR in drug discovery. In order for VR tech to gain widespread recognition in the pharmaceutical space, certain technological advancements still have to be made, but probably now is the right time to start exploring this topic and investing in pharmaceutical VR projects. Very likely, the ongoing wave of interest towards other unrelated to drug discovery technology, Metaverse, will catalyze substantial advancements in the VR tech, since VR should be one of the key ways to access Metaverse. This whole technological shift can accelerate the adoption of VR in pharmaceutical research as well.

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Topics: Industry Trends   

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