Virtual Reality for Drug Discovery is for Real

In 2016, the unthinkable happened. Pundits had been predicting a major shakeup was coming that would change the future. Yes, that’s right: The new wave of commercial virtual reality headsets finally hit the market, led by Oculus VR. And then not much changed after the peak year of 2016 when venture capitalists pumped $857 million into VR startups. Last year, Oculus shipped only about 350,000 headsets. For comparison, PlayStation 4 sold about 17 million units in 2018. While the gaming world has been slow to buy into the technology, VR is finding traction in enterprise applications, as well as industries such as construction. But like with other emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, VR is particularly making inroads with healthcare, even for mental health. Now a handful of researchers and companies are advocating the use of virtual reality for drug discovery.

Drug development is a costly, lengthy, and difficult business. The Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development (CSDD) said a few years back that it costs upwards of $2.6 billion to bring a new drug to market. The average time from first patent filing to product launch is about a dozen years, with the number going up to about 15 years for rare diseases, according to Tufts CSDD. Such challenges have prompted the pharmaceutical and biotech industry to adopt technologies like AI to speed the process for drug discovery, with companies such as Insilico Medicine and Atomwise among some of the more established players in the field.

Virtual Reality for Drug Discovery

Using virtual reality to help discover new drugs is such a new concept that most of the research has been in the academic setting. The idea is a fairly simple one, and we’ll use the old lock-and-key analogy to illustrate why VR could become a standard tool in drug pipelines in the future. In drug discovery, scientists are attempting to find the right molecule with a specific shape that will bind to a protein target in the body for some therapies, or the bacteria or virus for others. So, drug discovery is partly about manufacturing the right key to unlock the door to treating a medical condition or disease. VR allows the researchers to analyze and manipulate the three-dimensional structures of molecules and proteins at life-size scales in a collaborative space, rather than dragging and clicking with a computer mouse on a desktop computer.

Research: VR for Drug Discovery is Legit

We’re optimists on paper but skeptics in practice, so we were relieved to learn that virtual reality for drug discovery appears to be a legitimate application of the technology. In a paper published last year in the journal Expert Opinion on Drug Discovery, for instance, the experts opined that “VR will lead to a revolution in pharmaceutical development.” Of course, scientists like to pepper their studies with plenty of caveats, and this team is no different, saying that “there are still obstacles to the successful and extensive application of VR to drug development, including the demand for further improvements to the available hardware and software.” The researchers end on an optimistic note: “As technology continues to improve, the barriers to the widespread adoption of VR will diminish and VR technologies will play an increasingly important role in novel drug development.”

Big Pharma Sees the Reality of VR for Drug Discovery

In a separate paper published just last month in the Journal of Molecular Graphics and Modelling, researchers from the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation – yes, that Novartis (NVS) – and a San Diego-based startup called Nanome described an “intuitive virtual world for viewing, manipulating, and modifying chemical and macromolecular structures in a fully immersive and collaborative 3D environment” for drug discovery.  Novartis started working on virtual reality for drug discovery in 2016, as soon as commercial VR hardware became available, developing its own software that allowed users to immerse themselves in the protein structure.

Nanome environment and VR lab setup.
Nanome environment and VR lab setup. Credit: Nanome

Using the collaborative VR platform developed by four-year-old Nanome, scientists can “physically interact with molecules, in a world that is not restricted by space, allowing users to reach out and touch a molecule as if it were an everyday object, but unlike an everyday object, force fields can be manipulated in the virtual environment effectively bringing atomic level physics to the macroscale.”

Nanome’s platform works on Hive and Oculus headsets, using GPU-enabled algorithms to host more than 10 scientists in a virtual molecular world. It offers basic molecular modeling software for free, with the full-blown pro version available for $499 per year.

VR for Molecular Manipulation

A research team on the other side of the Pond at the University of Bristol has done something similar with a cloud-based VR platform, spinning the research into a startup called Interactive Scientific that was founded in 2013. In a 2018 paper, the scientists described a series of molecular manipulation experiments in which participants threaded methane through a nanotube or tied a protein in a knot. The team concluded that the VR environment was about 12 times faster than conventional interfaces such as a desktop or using tinker toys, particularly for designing small-drug molecules. The company calls its molecular visualization tool iSciVIS.

Interactive Scientific collaborated with Oracle (ORCL) on the cloud-based environment to run simulations in real-time. While drug discovery is one application, other potential uses include synthetic biology and other fields that require designing 3D structures on the nanoscale.

Investing in Virtual Reality for Drug Discovery

Click for company websiteAt least one biotechnology company that develops new drugs for a living has created its own virtual reality platform for drug discovery. Founded in 2007, C4X Discovery (C4XD) out of Manchester, England, is a small-cap public company that has developed its own VR platform called 4Sight. The company has raised about $40 million publicly to date, though it presently only sports a market cap of about $26 million.

The centerpiece of the company’s technology is Taxonomy3, an AI-powered platform that analyzes human genetic datasets to identify patient-specific targets for drug discovery. C4X Discovery has nearly a dozen different drug projects in the pipeline, but one of its most promising, C4X3256, is a drug to treat addiction. The drug works by targeting the Orexin-1 receptor in the brain that is responsible for compulsive behavior and anxiety.

The C4X Discovery platform for drug discovery.
It’s a topsy-turvy world in drug discovery. Credit: C4X Discovery

The company used 4Sight in the design of the new drug, hiring a former video game developer to lead the coding team, CNN reported. 4Sight enables scientists to visualize data from Taxonomy3 in 4D, measuring time as well as three-dimensional space to run the sort of simulations required to determine if the key (molecule) in question can unlock the right lock (protein).

If successful, C4X3256 would not just be a validation of VR tech in drug discovery. It would also net C4X Discovery a ton of money, as it is working with a London-based pharmaceutical company called Indivior (INDV) on development and commercialization in a deal worth up to $294 million. That’s a whole lot of PlayStation4s.


Virtual reality for drug discovery is the real deal. The most exciting thing is that the technology is only now emerging but is already showing real-world value – and not just in drug discovery. Both Nanome and Interactive Scientific market their VR platforms for molecular manipulation outside of healthcare as well. Perhaps VR can finally help with the development and commercialization of nanomaterials and metamaterials. We would certainly expect it to be adopted by more biotech companies in the future, leading to collaborations or even acquisitions with the companies we’ve highlighted here today.

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