Virtual reality proteins: exciting times!

A virtual reality company based in the UK has worked with the University of Arkansas to create a program that allows 3D virtual reality visualization of proteins. To me this is exciting news for a number of reasons… firstly, as a genuine self-confessed protein nerd, I think it must be awesome to be able to experience protein structure in 3D. To me this is like what Star Wars nerds would feel like if they got a real-life 3D tour of the Millenium Falcon.

Secondly, and this should pobably have come first, it being the reason why the program was developed, this will be an incredibly useful tool in drug development. As we know, the vast majority of drugs bind to proteins in order to cause their effect; however in order for this to happen, lots of clever medicinal chemists first need to design drug molecules that are capable of binding to a specific protein. And in order to do this, they need to understand the structure of the protein. Scientists can obtain structural information about proteins in a number of ways, but until now all of this data has only ever resulted in images, similar to the one above, that can be manipulated on screen, but within certain constraints. What scientists at the University of Arkansas can now do is get up close and personal with every nook and cranny of the protein.. and this is especially helpful because it is very often the nooks and crannies that act as binding sites. The logic behind this is obvious, if a protein had its binding site on its surface, it would spend its entire life binding to relevant molecules without discrimination and causing a lot of cellular processes to take place that might not have been necessary. It’d be a bit of a protein tart, effectively. However, if it conceals its binding site and only reveals it to certain special proteins under certain conditions, it is able to be a lot more selective about its binding, and therefore the cell and ultimately the body, is able to control the functions that this protein is involved in. This technology is extremely exciting for the scientists involved, and will hopefully allow them a view of proteins that no-one has experience before, which will in turn hopefully grant them a huge advantage in drug development.

The technology additionally has a huge market for teaching, or at least I think so. I’m of the opinion that it’s much easier to understand a lot of things if they’re illustrated well, and this could revolutionise the teaching of protein structure. Plus, I think most people would agree that playing around in a 3D virtual reality protein sounds a lot more fun than looking at powerpoint slides with pictures on!

Depending on the limitations of the technology, I also think it has exciting implications for more general science communication… such as documentaries in 3D TV and 3D exhibits at science museums. This is the area I find potentially most exciting. It could open up the world of protein structure to the lay person on the street, which to me would be a brilliant thing. Not enough people understand how incredible protein structure is and, more importantly, why it is so incredible. In later blog posts I will try to illustrate this as best as I can, without 3D technology! So there’s something to look forward to…

As with all my posts, please please let me know if anything is unclear to you or appears inaccurate, confusing or downright wrong. I’m extremely receptive to feedback, and I’d love to hear you thoughts. I’d also love to know if there are any particular drugs you’d be interested in understanding, or indeed anything else you’d like to see me blogging about. I’m always up for a bit of research.



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