It generally takes between ten and 12 years to bring a new drug to market, and the initial discovery and development stage is one of the most hectic parts of the process. Out of every 10,000 compounds tested, only a couple will make it through to become licenced treatments.

Companies operating at this early stage of development are tasked with accessing the chemical make-up, viability, safety and stability of new chemical entities, and any tool they can get their hands on to make this process simpler, or that helps to offer up a new perspective on the efficacy of known compounds, is invaluable, and can have a profound impact on the entire drug development process.

Commonly used molecule visualisation methods – such as the famous ‘stick and ball’ model, which allows scientists to play with a static 3D realisation of a molecule – provide researchers with a different perspective on molecule make-up, hopefully triggering an idea for new applications, but these visualisation methods are often limited, as the movements and intractability of molecules and compounds is tricky to accurately represent.

This is the problem that prompted drug development company C4X Discover to branch out beyond the traditional. Using the Unreal Engine, a video game engine developed by Epic Games for use in titles such as Fortnite and the Gears of War series, C4X is developing medicines in the digital world with a tool called 4Sight, visualising molecules in a virtual reality (VR) space, and allowing C4X scientists to view molecular data in a way chemists haven’t considered before.

Changing the game: a different perspective for chemists

“Epic Games has been around for over 20 years, and for that time we’ve been famous for two things – we’ve made video games, and we’ve made the Unreal Engine to allow other people to make great content,” explains Epic Games’ Unreal Engine Enterprise director Simon Jones. “A couple of years ago we built a team that is entirely focused on non-games, called the enterprise team, and companies started to call us and tell us how they were experimenting in various areas, and our minds began to get blown pretty quickly. It was at that point that we had a call from C4X.”

Jones admits that when C4X first got in touch he assumed they’d be using the Unreal Engine to design new labs – something that pharmaceutical giant Roche had undertaken using the technology recently. While on the face of it C4X looked like quite a traditional medical company, with chemists going about their research in the usual fashion, what they were actually hoping to do with the engine was to come up with a completely new way to design pharmaceutical compounds.

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“They started explaining how they design compounds for medicine, showing me the mathematical model on a whiteboard with lots of formulas, then they got the sticks and ball model out, and showed me how a compound works, showing me the basics of the tessellation of compounds coming together to form a molecule, and the flexibility of the molecule, and how things can change. Then they showed me how they wanted to do it in the Unreal Engine.”

By putting the molecule data into a game engine, and visualising that data in a 3D virtual space, chemists were able to easily get among the compounds, designing and testing at molecular level, running data on different variations efficiently and easily. According to Jones, when C4X CTO and founder Dr Charles Blundell first saw a molecule he’d been working on for years in VR, he immediately spotted a number of flaws in their designs, simply because he’d seen them from a different perspective.

A collaborative approach: so where we dropping?

In utilising the Unreal Engine, C4X has developed a means of collaboration between chemists, not only within an office, but anywhere across the world. A digital, VR world means that any two scientists can work together in real-time as if they were in the same room. Given the unique perspective the 4Sight VR tool brings to the field, the ability to also have two or more individuals collaborating on a project has the potential to change the game.

And surprisingly, given the specialised field C4X is working in, the engine itself has not had to undergo any changes. “It’s exactly the same tech. I think it’s staggering that that’s the case,” comments Jones. “The guys at C4X are trying to collaborate, they want multiple people in a scene, but we’ve just expanded Fortnite to 100 players in one scene. One hundred players geographically located on different hardware. They’re in the same scene all collaborating – though in Fortnite they’re fighting – using exactly the same technology.

“The C4X team are using the base technology that we’re using, but they’re also able – because Unreal Engine is an open platform and they have source code – to modify the engine itself. Though typically what they do is remove features to make it more efficient.”

At the time of writing, C4X has a listing on its website for an Unreal Engine programmer with in-depth experience of work within the games industry. Jones expresses the amount of applications Unreal Engine alone has seen in the medical space, and the amount of industries hiring traditionally games-focused staff: “We’re seeing this becoming a vertical very quickly. Examples off the top of my head are therapeutic pain relief – they’re building applications to distract burns victims when they’re having their bandages replaced. In therapeutic treatment there’s efforts being made in helping spina bifida patients to walk, they’re designing care homes around the colour vision deficiencies present in certain types of Alzheimer’s, they’re training medical staff such as optometrists. It’s exploding.”

Given the utility of technology like VR and augmented reality, we could well be entering an era where the future of experimental pharmaceuticals and medical care is partly dictated by video game developers. We just hope they don’t feel the need to drop in from a battle bus.