Virtual Reality Technology Could Save Drug Developers Thousands

By Elijah Labby Friday, November 27, 2020

You may have seen or participated in virtual reality (VR) games in which you place hardware over your eyes and experience what it would be like to fly, go skydiving, or surf a large wave, but games are only a small percentage of the potential application of VR in the United States.

One of these applications is in the medical field, where chemists are able to build molecular structures to combat diseases. Nanome, a VR software company that focuses primarily on medical applications for the technology, as well as hardware company Oculus, are saving therapeutic companies tens of thousands of dollars per year, according to a case study.

The study, released by Oculus for Business from Facebook, said that the company would save money by reducing errors when they are creating drugs.

The process is a bit like building a key by looking at the inside of a lock, said Nanome CTO Sam Hessenauer. The ability to look at the inside of the particle structure and see how the individual proteins are interacting enables the scientists to see errors they would not have previously and make the appropriate changes, a new capability the report said was game-changing.

“Being able to inspect these structures inside VR gives us the opportunity to ask other questions, propose additional experimentation, and test our ideas to move the science forward,” said Lewis Whitehead, Ph.D., Director of Computational Chemistry at Nimbus Therapeutics.

Such a capability could drastically decrease the time from a drug’s “lead optimization” stage — the 12-18 month period in which scientists design a drug candidate — and move to the clinical stage more quickly. In one case, Whitehead says, “we were able to make our compounds more active on the target. These kinds of decisions can save tens of thousands of dollars a year.”

VR and the Coronavirus

While many experts agree that VR could change the way medicinal research is done, some believe it can go even further.

Doctors at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles, California, many of which have little relevant experience with this technology, and in some cases with certain medical situations, have been training to provide COVID-19 diagnoses as well as procedures like CPR in an effort to guard against any stress on the healthcare system.

VR gives these doctors an experience that feels real, with simulated consequences. And, says Russell Metcalf-Smith, director of the Women's Guild Simulation Center for Advanced Clinical Skills at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, that can make all the difference.

"It feels like you are in the room with a patient," Metcalf-Smith told CNN. "Based on the decisions you make in the simulation, one direction will lead to another. We have [doctors] jump quickly into a virtual environment like this to get them to where they need to be."

One of the more obvious benefits of VR, which the medical field embraced far before the coronavirus took hold in the United States, is the ability to socially distance while receiving the training. But developers like Dr. Alex Young, who founded Virti, the company that Cedars-Sinai uses to provide metrics on doctors’ VR performance, say that the exercise can actually help develop empathy and bedside manner.

In an interview with CNN, Young said the experience of having COVID-19 and being isolated could be a scary one, made worse by the communicative barrier of personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks.

"One simulation puts the user alone in an isolation room… so they can get an idea of how scary it is for patients,” he said. “It's easy to forget the basics of communicating through the masks, so scenarios like this help with bedside manner."

The VR Economy

Companies like Oculus are leading an industry that is exploding. Despite COVID-19, or perhaps because of it, desire for VR technologies across various applications is rising and is contributing to an estimated compound annual growth rate of over 44% and a market size anticipated to be in excess of $57 billion by 2027.

While they were once considered the stuff of science fiction movies, VR’s impact on the gaming market has been much more measured than anticipated. However, Oculus, Nanome, and Virti are attempting to end a problem that none of them could have predicted, but against which they are mobilizing effectively.

About the Author

Headshot for author Elijah Labby

Elijah Labby is a graduate of the National Journalism Center. He has previously written for Broadband Breakfast, a technology and internet policy website.

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