Virtual reality technology transforming COVID-19 drug discovery

By Jenni Spinner

- Last updated on GMT

(PeopleImages/iStock via Getty Images Plus)
(PeopleImages/iStock via Getty Images Plus)

Related tags COVID-19 Coronavirus Drug discovery Drug development Laboratory

Nanome’s virtual reality tech is being put to use by Oak Ridge National Laboratory and top pharma firms to study COVID-19 and explore drug candidates.

Virtual reality (VR) is not a brand-new technology. The term dates back to the 1980s, when researchers first developed the tech and the gear, and just a few years later, youngsters like Nanome CEO and co-founder Steve McCloskey first got a taste of VR in fun zones at amusement parks or playing video games at home. 

Fast forward to 2021, where VR and its applications have evolved far beyond entertainment. McCloskey spoke with Outsourcing-Pharma about how the team at Nanome is working with researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and other renowned institutions to harness VR technology for analysis of the COVID-19 virus, drug discovery, and more.

OSP: Could you please talk a little bit about your relationship and experience with VR technology?

SM: I actually tried VR in the 1990s at Six Flags in Los Angeles when he was a toddler. Initially, as I was going through my nanoengineering curriculum at the University of California at San Diego, I thought there ought to be a better way to visualize molecular systems than traditional 2D representations (ex: Lewis dot structures).

Growing up with video games, I thought that video game graphics engines could be repurposed for molecular visualizations. Around the same time in 2014/15, right after Oculus was acquired by Facebook, that’s when everything clicked.

Keita, our chief operations officer and co-founder, came from a film/media and computer science background. When he tried the google cardboard headset in 2015, it clicked that this must be the next computing interface and that there must be better use cases than zombie shooters and roller coasters. We later met at a VR-film festival at UC San Diego in 2015 and formed a company shortly after.

OSP: Could you please talk about how you came to realize the possibilities of using VR in molecular design (particularly around drug discovery/development)?

SM: Going through start-up accelerators and business incubators at UC San Diego, the founding team quickly realized significant market potential within life sciences. The founding team also discovered that drug discovery scientists have tried using 3D technologies to get better insights into their molecular data since the 1980s, so VR felt like the next natural step for drug discovery.

OSP: Could you please provide a ‘nutshell’ description of your tech and process?

SM: It’s a scientific collaboration platform that includes:

  1. virtual chemistry building kit on steroids that never runs out of parts
  2. scientists can apply very complex simulation & analytics algorithms
  3. all while seeing virtual holographic colleagues, whiteboards, and screens around them.

OSP: You discussed your partnerships with Novartis and other major pharma players—could you please talk about your collaborations and projects you’ve tackled?

Steve McCloskey, CEO and co-founder, Nanome

SM: In top pharma companies and government research labs, scientists use Nanome for everything from COVID19, cancer, diabetes to psychedelics research. This was especially important during the height of the COVID19 lockdowns when scientists could not work side-by-side with each other. Instead, scientists met with their holographic colleagues in our virtual environment and closely collaborated as if they were right next to each other.

 OSP: You mentioned that researchers looking at the same structure over and over in more conventional systems might more readily see something of a breakthrough when working with your tech on the same molecule. Could you please talk about that ‘oh, wow’ moment, and how this tech makes that possible?

SM: Viewing molecular systems through a monitor is like looking through a window. Scientists can get some insights, but they miss the obvious nuances when they can easily manipulate the molecules with their hands at arm's length in full 3D. Getting a complete understanding of the molecular systems and their interactions is finally possible in VR that simply isn't possible in traditional monitors or legacy 3D glasses.

OSP: Could you please talk about how the Nanome technology helps accelerate molecule discovery, and the ways in which that benefits researchers and sponsors?

SM: Because of the insights that can be gained only in VR, scientists often realize that a path that they were going to go forward with using traditional monitors would actually not yield a successful result. Without these insights in VR, they would likely synthesize the molecule and have suboptimal in vitro results; worst-case scenario, they may even go into Phase III clinical trials, then have suboptimal results.

The further scientists go down a path with a suboptimal compound, the more it costs scientists time and resources. As a result, having the insight that a compound design may be suboptimal earlier, in VR, is invaluable to their research.

OSP: The story of Oak Ridge National Laboratory using your tech in their SARS-CoV-2 work is wild. Could you please share how you came to work with the team, and how the VR elevated the possibilities of discovery and understanding?

SM: Interestingly, Nanome’s first customer, Zoran Radic (professor at UC San Diego Skaggs School of Pharmacy), actively collaborated with scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and eventually introduced us to Andrey Kovalevsky there. We actually made a video with Zoran that you can view here​.

OSP: Please talk a bit more about the potential for this technology—feel free to talk about applications you’re working on, uses you envision for the future, anything about next steps, etc.

Founders of Nanome

SM: Sure:

Molecular beyond organic

Beyond organic: inorganic. We already have users in academia who are using Nanomefor battery material research. The latest semiconductor feature sets are ~2 nanometers, which are the size of a few Tylenol molecules. Semiconductors and batteries happen to use different parts of the periodic table instead of organic elements.

Building from the atom up

Currently, we’re at the 1-10 nanometer scale (small molecules, peptides/proteins). That said, we want to continue to support more atoms to build up to bigger scales. Viral, cellular, and tissue modeling and simulation that contains atomically precise data is yet to be done.

We want users to see what’s going on at the tissue, cellular, viral scale, then zoom down to the atomic scale to see what’s really going on. This concept is in its early stages, and we probably won’t be pursuing it for at least another five years, but we would like to go in this direction eventually.

Taking collaboration and gig work to another level

We also believe Nanome can be an excellent community hub or scientific metaverse of sorts. Currently, there is a public lobby where users can see all other public rooms.

Scientists who don’t know each other are getting to know each other through Nanome. Eventually, we want to turbo boost this even more. What does scientific gig work in VR look like? How can CROs and biotechs discover and meet each other in a virtual metaverse? Although this is probably three to five years out, we do believe there’s a massive potential for Nanome here.

XR= AR, VR, MR: XR = [___] reality (augmented, mixed, virtual) or extended reality

Traditionally, we have stayed away from AR (augmented reality) as it has lacked compute power, high resolution, and hand input mechanism. However, when the technology is here, we believe that AR will be the ideal XR medium given the real world can still be seen seamlessly.

AR technology is still a few years away, but mixed reality seems to be nearing its prime in the coming years. The Varjo XR3 is an excellent headset that allows users to see the actual world through high-resolution camera/video feeds.

In addition, the Oculus Quest is set to support passthrough mixed reality capabilities. We already have some prototypes for the XR3, and we’re excited to see the XR industry progress as we add more capabilities to our platform.

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