(p. R3) Chemist and entrepreneur Jackie von Salm recently walked inside a receptor in the brain to inspect a new drug compound. As she looked at the brightly colored, cascading ribbons around her, she noted something: Part of the atomic structure, a series of thick, orange rods and hexagons, jutted toward her in an odd way, suggesting that the compound, a derivative of the psychedelic DMT, might be effective at treating addiction without having hallucinogenic effects.
“This is weird,” says Dr. von Salm, the co-founder and chief scientific officer of Psilera Inc., a Tampa, Fla.-based company working to turn psychedelics into treatments for addiction, neurodegenerative diseases and mood disorders. “But it might be really unique and special.”
The odd positioning of the compound might be the right shape to latch onto serotonin receptors in the brain that are involved with hallucination and addiction. That insight was possible thanks to a technology more closely associated with gamers than scientists: Virtual reality.
Dr. von Salm is one of a growing number of drug-discovery researchers who are using VR to see, in new ways, the molecules they have long studied on computer screens. Their goal is to investigate subtle changes in the distance, shape and chemical properties of atomic structures that could give them clues about how well a drug might work and speed up the drug-discovery process.
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Since 2018, cancer researchers at the University of California San Francisco have been using VR to better understand the genetic mutations in cancer cells that might make a patient resistant to treatment. For example, in VR, it was clear that the reason a drug didn’t bind properly to its protein target in the cancer cell was because of the movement of a portion of the protein called the P-loop. The movement was caused by a mutation in the target.
On a computer monitor, it was difficult to see the tiny change in the movement. “When there are changes like that, the VR is critical,” says Beth Apsel Winger, a hematologist and oncologist at the university’s department of pediatrics.
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(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date September 7, 2021, and has the title “Virtual Reality Puts Drug Researchers Inside the Molecules They Study.”)