VR is being used at ‘nano-level’ in big pharma

Is it the 'holy grail' that pharmaceutical researchers have been searching for?
29 July 2019

VR is finding its place in enterprise. Source: Shutterstock

Emerging with Oculus Rift less than a decade ago, virtual reality (VR) technology allows us to immerse ourselves into imagined worlds. 

VR’s potential in entertainment and media, where sights were keenly set from the outset, has not been truly realized. In the world of gaming, customers faced a hefty hardware price to entry, while a lack of commitment by large game developers, and “conservative” gameplay hampered real uptake. 

In industry, it’s a different story. Enterprises are now driving the sale of VR and AR hardware, as they see real opportunities in industry to augment their operations with technology that can throw its users into simulated environments. 

Since 3D technology was theorized in the early 20th century, big pharma has been 3D tech’s biggest user behind regular consumers. When VR technology came to market, then, this industry— and giants like Novartis and Pzifer— was first to take note.

Pharma researchers needed VR all along

In the last several years, a number of applications of VR in pharma have been explored. In the realms of marketing, for example, the tech can allow consumers to travel “through the bloodstream” in product demos, while in manufacturing, VR can help train users how to operate certain machinery.

But perhaps most captivating is its potential in research, where it can allow researchers to dive down through the lens of a microscope and explore the structural components and design of drugs at a molecular level.

This is the goal of San Diego-based VR technology company Nanome, whose CEO, Steve McCloskey told TechHQ that VR has the ability to make medicine design “intuitive” at the “nanoscale”.

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), 54 percent of failed clinical trials come from failing to obtain the desired results due to research errors. These are costly incidents, considering that close to USD$10 billion goes into its research every year. 

There’s not just an impact on cost, though. An article published by Clinical Leader noted that since 2014, there have been over 150 deaths attributed to clinical trials. Better medicines could be devised if researchers had a better understanding of how the drug works. 

According to McCloskey who studied nanoengineering at UC San Diego, not being able to “reach into the screen to move anything, or see it in real 3D” was a large cause of frustration. 

How is big pharma utilizing VR?

Requiring only a headset— such as Oculus Rift, Oculus Quest or HTC Vive— Nanome’s software allows users to load a molecule ‘map’ from a public database, which is then virtualized in 3D in front of their eyes. 

Using the headset’s controllers, users can touch, manipulate and create molecules, and then present findings later by projecting their work onto a 3D screen. 

According to McCloskey, the platform is currently being used by computational chemists and medicinal chemists working on small molecule drug development and large molecule protein engineering. But its biggest set of users are structural biologists, he said, who have the hardest time trying to explain the nuances of their protein structure to the chemists on a 2D presentation.

“Structural biologists cannot see and share the biomolecules about which they hypothesize, and on which they experiment—  even with the most advanced light microscopes, electron microscopes, and other equipment,” said McCloskey.  

“Instead, they’re forced to use measurements on vast numbers of identical molecules in order to determine a structure.

“Once we put them together in VR the training wheels fly off and the team is off to the races with an immediately obvious understanding of the protein,” he added.

Aside from providing an immersive and interactive perspective, the technology also caters to collaboration between researchers worldwide. Using a common interface, users can join each other’s research sessions from the other side of the world. 

“We believe that science can be fundamentally changed as academics, scientists and citizen-scientists design side-by-side – even when they’re on separate sides of the pond,” said McCloskey. 

Challenges and opportunities

While the technology has vast potential in drug discovery and development, despite its openness to new technology, Nanome still faces challenges in convincing the big pharma industry of the potential for VR beyond just novelty or ‘wow-factor’. 

The real challenge right now is awareness […], McCloskey said, emphasizing that while there is still work to be done to advance the software and its potential, his target market is often “amazed” by the platform and how fast it’s grown, being launched in 2015. 

Beyond big pharma, McCloskey also sees applications in other industries including chemical engineering and in the detection of micro-level manufacturing flaws

Despite somewhat of a false start in the world of gaming and entertainment, Nanome is just one example of how VR can have sincere implications in industry when developers set out to solve real problems. 

Whether the technology is the “Holy Grail” of big pharma is up for debate, but it certainly has a place in the researcher’s toolbox, and its potential will continue to advance with greater adoption and development. If there is time to be saved and money to be made at such low investment, there is no doubt this will follow. 

Now that universities and professional education institutes are gradually adopting it to train students in almost every discipline, meanwhile, many industries will soon need to add VR into their work processes as well to keep up with the emerging “digitized” talents that enter the workforce.