The real world and the virtual world continue to become more integrated, due in large part to technological innovation and responses to world events. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many of us to alter how we interact with just about everything — reshaping how we work, go to school, shop, socialize, and communicate. The term “virtual” took on a new meaning after the onset of the pandemic, causing people to interact with technology in ways they previously never had — perhaps adding even more momentum to an already growing trend of utilizing virtual technology for purposes beyond gaming and more akin to what can be seen in CGI effects in science fiction films. The pharmaceutical and biotech industries are finding ways to leverage this tech to increase efficiency in various areas.
Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Mixed Reality—What are the Differences?
We’ve seen these technologies play out in the movies for years. From Tom Cruise and Robert Downey Jr. manipulating computer files via augmented reality interfaces in Minority Report and Iron Man, to Sam Worthington using virtual reality to operate an alien host body in Avatar, these concepts have seemed to be more advanced than what real-world technology could offer — but that is beginning to change.
Virtual reality (VR) has been the “next big thing” for decades, but it has evolved to a point where realistic images, sounds, and other sensations can fully immerse users in an entirely different world.1 Because VR is fully immersive, it tricks the senses into believing that one is in a completely different environment.1 Augmented reality (AR) overlays digital information onto real-world elements, keeping the real world central but enhancing it with other digital details — the 2016 mobile gaming phenomenon, Pokémon GO, is among the best-known examples of AR technology.1 Mixed reality (MR) brings together real-world and digital elements, allowing users to interact with and manipulate both physical and virtual items and environments. MR allows one to have one foot in the real world and the other in an imaginary place — breaking down the fundamental barrier between the real and the imaginary.1 These technologies have been widely studied and applied in numerous medical applications and have become increasingly more affordable, flexible, and portable, enabling their use across both drug discovery and pharmaceutical manufacturing.
VR and AR in Drug Discovery
With the rapid advancement and increasing affordability of computer hardware and software, VR and AR are becoming more accessible to drug development researchers.2 These technologies, particularly AR, offer several advantages over traditional visualization tools, such as 2D projections or 3D physical models, which can obscure important molecular features.2 AR allows researchers to intuitively interact with molecules in ways that mirror their native environments, allowing for design modifications that can be leveraged to create more effective drugs.2 AR also allows scientists to physically interact with molecules in ways that are not limited by size or space, allowing researchers to “touch” and interact with a molecule as if it were an everyday object. But unlike an everyday object, the virtual space can be manipulated, effectively bringing atomic-level physics to the macroscale.2 While molecular graphics frameworks coupled with computational analysis are now ubiquitous tools for structural and computational biologists, sharing detailed visualizations and derived structural information with non-expert users can be challenging in the collaborative process.2 By reducing the barriers to viewing and interacting with structural data, structural analysis can be more easily shared with general scientists, reducing communication barriers and fostering novel collaboration in structural biology and structure-based drug discovery.2 VR and AR systems allow researchers to participate in simulations in ways never previously possible. AR drug modeling allows real-time haptic interaction with a molecule, as well as the ability to customize representations of macromolecules (e.g., DNA, RNA, protein, sugar molecules, or whole viruses).2
Both VR and AR offer advantages for investigating interactions between ligands that are potential drugs and macromolecules.3 Accurate visualization of the way ligands bind to large, complex structures (like proteins) is critical, and AR and VR allow researchers to observe the dynamics of protein-structure configurations while focusing on ligand-binding sites.3 Viewing protein structures and understanding how mutations lead to changes in their binding regions is essential in understanding antimicrobial resistance, which is crucial for predicting the modifications that are necessary to create more effective, next-generation drugs.3 Researchers can explore and select ligands for investigation based on biochemical parameters, such as distance, binding energy, and bonding information.3 AR allows them to then drag and rotate the ligand within the binding site to make instantaneous modifications.3 In this way, scientists can observe and interact with the ligand–target complex to identify more efficient conformational changes and identify ligands that are suitable candidates for drug development.3 The information gathered can then be translated to the design and synthesis of new drug candidates in the laboratory. This approach is much more informative, less tedious, and less time-consuming than more traditional algorithms.3 VR and AR are also more accurate and efficient at identifying drug-like ligands compared with traditional approaches, such as fragment- or diversity-oriented methods.3
VR and AR in Pharmaceutical Manufacturing
Manufacturing safe, cost-effective pharmaceuticals or biologics at industrial scale requires advanced operational precision and sophistication. With Industry 4.0 becoming the gold standard for most modern manufacturing organizations, pharmaceutical and biotech companies are exploring diverse ways to increase efficiency across the supply chain. As a result, these industries require new ways to solve complex challenges and avoid manufacturing delays while streamlining their processes. The AR/VR industry is anticipated to reach $94.4 billion by 2023,4 with AR leading the way. It is proving its worth in manufacturing, playing a significant role in improving maintenance, production, validation processes, and training.4 Combined with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), AR has ability to improve manufacturing workflows in labs, processing lines, and manufacturing facilities across the globe. Among the many benefits of implementing these technologies in enterprise manufacturing are seamless integration capabilities, with a wide variety of use cases and robust device compatibility, making AR appealing to small- and large-scale manufacturing entities alike. AR- and AI-powered tools improve communication, collaboration, and efficiency, which greatly reduces equipment downtime and manufacturing delays. Today’s AR and AI technology can efficiently tackle a broad range of challenges to support workflow solutions that not only empower users but increase safety and efficiency in manufacturing.4
AR technology can also be leveraged for equipment maintenance and repair, as operators can more visually follow procedures, identify equipment malfunctions, and capture critical data. Operators working in manufacturing sites can use AR to connect with remote experts around the globe.5 Imagine generating a digital bioreactor or a robotic arm from the comfort of one’s home or office — AR allows for the possibility of virtual exploration of large pieces of equipment without the need to physically travel to a site.6 Through AR-driven remote telepresence, operators can utilize "see-what-I-see" functionality to instantly connect with subject matter experts to obtain immediate assistance, identify malfunctions, and quickly repair machinery on the fly, without having to delay production or wait for an expert to physically come to the facility.4 In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, with travel remaining restricted, AR enables inspection, audits, tours, and repairs that might otherwise have been impossible.
There are also various opportunities to use these telepresence experiences for training. Many CDMOs have manufacturing plants all over the world, and most locations are not within close proximity of headquarters, where top specialists and experts work and live. AR allows for remote engineering, where experts can support staff with maintenance operations or troubleshooting without physically being there. Trainers can see what operators see, and they can use AR tools to draw directly on an operator’s screen or drop an augmented reality pin in the operator’s physical environment.5
Organizations can also implement training before an operator ever sets foot on the manufacturing floor — in a VR-simulated environment. This can especially save time during site construction, as operators can be fully trained before a new facility build is complete. VR and AR gamification can also improve knowledge retention, ultimately reducing manufacturing errors and mitigating difficult learning curves.5 The ability to provide employees with hands-on training before they ever set foot in the manufacturing facility can result in faster onboarding and job adeptness.
Another upside is that AR technology is flexible. It can be supported by a wide variety of devices — from mobile to headsets and fully immersive products. Technologies like Apple ARKit and Google ARCore provide familiar methods for capturing data or accessing workflow tools, giving operators the ability to work with devices with which they are likely already familiar.
For complex environments where operators need both hands to carry out tasks, AR headsets can also be utilized (think Iron Man flying around with a digital display alerting him to everything going on around him). Operators can receive critical data or instructions while remaining hands-free to perform a task. Standard operating procedures (SOPs) can be reimagined from physical documents to step-by-step guides in augmented reality — potentially reducing errors, increasing efficiency, and improving validation — largely because instructions can be displayed in real time and in the right context.6 AR also offers opportunities for real-time feedback and warning messages that can be triggered by operator errors.
To keep up with market demands, increase performance, and optimize discovery, production, and delivery chains, successful organizations recognize the need for smart technology, and VR and AR can be invaluable to an organization. The use of VR and AR even spans areas such as patient treatment and education, behavior modification, prescription adherence, surgical planning, and more — empowering stakeholders across all facets of the medical world. As VR and AR technologies continue to advance and become more affordable, and organizations learn how to best implement them, we are likely to see “the stuff of movies” become commonplace in day-to-day activities across pharma in the near future.
- “Demystifying the Virtual Reality Landscape.” Intel. 2020. Web.
- Kingsley, Laura; Brunet, Vincent, et al. “Development of a Virtual Reality Platform for Effective Communication of Structural Data in Drug Discovery.” Science Direct. Jun. 2019. Web.
- Ventola, C. Lee. “Virtual Reality in Pharmacy: Opportunities for Clinical, Research, and Educational Applications.” National Institutes of Health. May. 2019. Web.
- Stracquatanio, Angelo. “Artificial Intelligence and Augmented Reality for the Pharmaceutical Industry.” Processing Magazine. 25 Feb. 2019. Web.
- “How Extended Reality Boosts Daily Operations in Pharma Manufacturing.” NNE. 2018. Web.
- Hargreaves, Ben. “The Future is Mixed Reality: Augmented Reality Put to Work on Manufacturing.” William Reed Business Media. 23 Jan. 2019. Web.