Four thousand years ago, the Greeks documented the use of optical properties of spheres filled with water. Later in the 1600s, microscopes were being used to study biology; and as the centuries progressed, the world started to see its first modern microscopes. In 1931, German physicists developed the prototype electron microscope. but since that time, the microscope has primarily been a one-on-one, single-user experience.
“Technology has constantly fueled new insights, discoveries and innovations,” said Steve McCloskey, CEO, Nanome, “After the invention of the microscope we were able to see things we never could, visualization drives scientific insight.”
That new visualization is coming in the form of a virtual reality (VR) application that allows scientists, doctors and researchers to virtually collaborate on drug design and discovery at nanoscale.
Nanome, a San Diego-based startup, has raised $6.4 M to date, including a $3M round in February 2021 from Bullpen Capital and Michael Antonov, to enable scientists and researchers to model and simulate proteins and chemicals and transform how drugs are developed and discovered.
McCloskey says he sees many resources invested into better machines like electron microscopes and new computational approaches like artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing but questions how people understand the data from [..] that equipment.
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“There are machines that can generate great information, but the most important part of the equation is the human aspect to all of this,” said McCloskey. “We empower scientists to use all of this information to collaboratively develop novel therapeutics, biologics and more nanoscaled discoveries by equipping them with the most advanced interface built for this, VR.”
“Part of our work in translational science involves the discovery of new medicines to treat human disease,” said David Pardoe, Head of technology development, LifeArc. “We use computers to visualise the structure of proteins we want to a potential drug to interact with – imagine this to be a lock (the protein) and key (the drug); when the key fits the lock you can open the door (or the drug does something to the protein which causes the desired therapeutic effect).”
“The problem is that for the whole of my 30-something year career, we’ve explored the structure of these proteins on a flat piece of glass – a traditional PC screen.”
Pardoe says that irrespective of the sector people work in, they explore all complex information and data in this way. “It’s simply bonkers that the world hasn’t moved on. Data deserves more,” added Pardoe.
VR for change
LifeArc is a medical research charity that focuses on advancing medical research to benefit patient treatment and diagnosis. Since 2019, a team of six LifeArc scientists and 13 experts from Nanome have been developing a full suite of VR-based drug discovery tools that will enable researchers to better understand the relationship between clinical and biological information and disease mechanisms.
“Similar to VR in the gaming industry, which allows players to collaborate to ‘win the game’, we can do the same thing with our work in VR applications such as Nanome,” said Pardoe. “This means I can collaborate on drug discovery with people who aren’t in the same room as me, the same building, or even the same time zone.”
“With VR, now we can ‘stand inside’ the lock (our protein) and look at its shape and it’s features. We can build the key while we’re inside the lock which lets us be more confident that the drug we’re building might work,” said Pardoe. “We can also actually walk around inside this space and this physical movement helps us to better understand the spatial relationships between features inside the protein in a much more meaningful way than fiddling with a mouse on a flat table whilst looking at a flat screen.”
Pardoe said that during the Covid-19 disruptions, LifeArc was able to collaborate with experts across the globe using Nanome to design new drugs to tackle the pandemic. “I did this from my study at home,” said Pardoe.
McCloskey believes that starting at the small molecular drug discovery level is the beginning joint team’s vision. “The platform could be further enhanced to view surface antigens such as the Coronavirus or tumor cells that would accelerate the pace that new discoveries are translated into effective therapies for patients.”
“VR, augmented and mixed reality technologies have the potential to be used in visualizing cellular structures and viruses, or new ways to show the three-dimensional perspective of data and relationships. This allows investigators to tease out complex relationships, and that’s where we go next,” added McCloskey.
McCloskey believes that spatial computing – VR, augmented, extended and mixed reality – is the ultimate scientific interface.
“The pandemic and working remote was a spark to many people that now see the huge potential of having a remote team that can effectively work together from across the nation or the world,” said McCloskey. “It didn’t really make a difference if people were next door or across the border; VR was the best way to connect with people during the pandemic.”