Pharmacology in the Metaverse

The recent rebranding of Facebook to Meta signalled the company’s focus on investment in the Metaverse (or Omniverse if you are following NVIDIA’s developments). Whatever the name, the ‘verse had a global market size of $38.8bn in 2021 and is expected to grow to $678bn by 2030. Is this the beginning of something big, and should pharmacologists already be looking to embrace it early in its development phase? In this article, we will explore what the pharmacology of the future might look like in the Metaverse and how it could change our teaching and research. 

What is the Metaverse? 

We need to start with a definition of the “metaverse” - although this will differ depending on who you ask - so take this definition with that caveat. It could be thought of as the Web 3.0: Web 1.0 gave us the internet and connected sites containing information; Web 2.0 gave us social media and connected people; Web 3.0 is the next natural evolution that connects people, places, and the internet of things (IoT) using technologies whose names are gradually creeping into general use, such as blockchain, edge computing, Machine Learning (ML) and Extended Realities (XR, a combination of Virtual and Augmented Realities, VR & AR). We could think of the Metaverse as being the seamless integration between the physical and digital world. So, despite media portrayals, the Metaverse is not all about VR and AR, although these are important enabling tools. VR/AR does not define the Metaverse any more than your PC screen or phone defines the Internet, but it certainly plays a very important role. Wider use of the Metaverse will require file compatibility between multiple software platforms; a scaled-up version of Pixar’s Universal Scene Description. Ideally, it will democratise the creation of complex 3D assets (models) and virtual worlds. That will be key. 

Pharmacologists may not yet be thinking about how the Metaverse will impact their teaching and research; it is certainly very early days. However, we have detailed below some of the current tools and ideas that may help pharmacologists engage with the Metaverse. 

Pharmacology Research in the Metaverse 

Visualising target structure and binding of drugs to their active site at a molecular level is a crucial part of pharmacological development. Pharmacologists will already be familiar with software tools for simulating ligand docking to 3D protein structures using Chimera and PyMol. Good as these are, it is often difficult to visualise 3D interactions in 2D, and to explore these with fellow pharmacologists and distant collaborators. With the release of the Machine Learning (ML)-driven AlphaFold database, we now have access to almost 1 million 3D protein structures. Although the AlphaFold structures are just predictions (with recognised caveats), it is now possible to visualise in VR, and interact with receptor structures that have not yet been seen. One example is the three predicted structures of the α1-adrenoceptor subtypes which can now be visualised in fully immersive VR (figure 1a). The Nanome software enables the viewer to position themselves within the binding pocket of the receptor (figure 1b) and observe the bond strengths whilst altering the molecular structure of the ligand. The ability to do this with colleagues remotely in real time could significantly enhance collaborative science. 

Figure 1a) α1-adrenoceptor subtypes predicted by AlphaFold and visualised in fully immersive VR.  From L-R α1A, α1B & α1D. 1b) VR visualisation of the noradrenaline binding pocket of the α1A-adrenoceptor.  Both images obtained using Nanome VR application. 

ML and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are revolutionising many areas of science and everyday life, from self-driving cars using computer vision to previously unsolvable image analysis problems. It will certainly be a major force in the development of the Metaverse. However, the creation of 3D models/assets for use in biological research and teaching is a time-consuming process. A collection of such assets can be found on the Glasgow Life Sciences Sketchfab page. The ML developments in Image Analysis will help to speed up the creation of 3D assets derived from biological datasets, which in turn will speed the creation of interactive virtual environments that could comprise complex pharmacological simulations. Imagine shrinking down to the size of a single molecule and watching the entire process of drug binding and second messenger activation from within a cell. As researchers build the simulated cells from available or AI generated 3D assets, pharmacologists will be able to build new drugs to control these virtual cells. It may sound like science fiction, but all the software tools are available right now. By streamlining the compatibility of file formats across the multitude of 3D creation tools, the Metaverse will hopefully bring everything together in a more user-friendly way. 

Democratising Access to Training, Instruments and Analysis 

Access to advanced instrumentation (e.g., imaging technology) is crucial to the advancement of pharmacological research, but this kind of technology is expensive to buy and run and requires specialist training. Maybe some aspects of the Metaverse could be harnessed to widen access to these resources through remote access and training programmes? Across the Midlands Universities of Nottingham, Birmingham and Leicester, for example, researchers, supported by the BBSRC, are developing ways for remote operation of microscopes, such that only the sample needs to travel. This approach has unlimited geographical reach, and could open relatively cheap access to instrumentation to groups across the world. The use of VR models of microscopes with Hololens technology for 3D virtual training is also being developed. Both these approaches have the potential to make a huge impact on global accessibility to high end equipment and democratisation of science. 

From an analysis perspective, the recent acquisition of VR image analysis software ‘Arivis’ by Zeiss signals a move to a more seamless transition from microscope direct to VR. At the University of Glasgow, the new Advanced Research Centre (ARC) has a dedicated Extended Reality (XR) space that will enable research groups to help build the Metaverse, develop assets and define the new standards that will be required.  

Pharmacology Teaching in the Metaverse 

We learned a lot about the importance of online communication and collaboration during the pandemic. Who would have thought we could deliver an entire pharmacology BSc online at such short notice? The technology was already there, we just hadn’t fully exploited it. The Metaverse is similar. It is a means of communicating and collaborating in a virtual space.

Although the tools exist, the issue is we are short of assets and resources specifically for teaching pharmacology. For instance, Labster boasts over 230 simulations but has dropped its VR support and only has one pharmacology simulation. Similarly, EON XR is a lesson builder that supports mobile devices and VR, but has limited pre-existing assets that could be used in a pharmacology lesson. The newer Edify platform provides an excellent VR-based lesson building platform and a variety of bespoke lesson topics. Edify’s molecular viewer app could certainly be useful for pharmacology teaching. However, whilst several content/lesson creation platforms are now available, it is up to us, the pharmacology community, to build the assets and lessons for our students. A recent Physiological Society grant enabled the creation of a fully immersive VR game for learning aspects of cell physiology. 'Cell: The Genesis' was built by two scientists (Craig Daly and Angela Douglass) with limited knowledge of programming and game design.

At present, the workflow involved in creating 3D assets and games can be complex and can involve a range of different software packages. The Metaverse promises to fix that by making 3D content and scene creation more integrated and accessible to all.   


We are right at the very beginning of the Metaverse. Two decades ago, The BPS were pioneers in computer-aided learning with the development of the PharmaCALogy suite of programs. Hopefully this article will act as a call to action to Society members to think about how we might develop the new resources that our students of the future will need or even expect. PharmaCALogy 2.0 could be something very special indeed. 


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Published: 25 Aug 2022

About the author

Craig Daly

School of Life Sciences, University of Glasgow, Glasgow

Steve Briddon

School of Life Sciences and COMPARE, University of Nottingham

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