Understanding What Happens at the Molecular Level

If you’d have been lucky enough to visit London’s Science Museum during the Churchill’s Scientists1 exhibition there, you’d have probably been fascinated by John Kendrew’s model of the structure of myoglobin, a muscle protein which can absorb and store a single oxygen molecule – the molecular level.

It was built – if that’s the right word – in 1962, measured about a metre and a half square and comprised an enormous number of regularly-spaced sticks pointing upward, with spherical interconnection points at various heights on those sticks to represent myoglobin’s atomic structure. It was also the first of its kind.

It’s an amazingly complex piece of modelling based on x-ray crystallography, and anyone fortunate enough to have seen it wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that it earned Kendrew a Nobel Prize.

Although motionless and with internal workings half-hidden by the forest of supporting sticks, it was still a great leap forward in medical animation, being something which communicated “invisible” information in such a way that it could be understood easily by a great many people – but it wouldn’t have lived up to today’s medical animation requirements.
The methodology and requirements of medical animation in three dimensions has certainly advanced since then, and whereas Kendrew built his famous model to prove that such a thing could be done, today’s 3D medical animations are created for the specific purposes of education, development and marketing – especially when depicting scenarios at the molecular level and sub-molecular level.

As far as education is concerned, it’s no surprise that 3D medical animation is such a successful teaching method. After all, over 40% of the human cerebral cortex is given over to decoding visual input – and that proportion is more than the brain uses to process all the other sensory data it receives.2

Regarding development (and raising funds for that development) 3D medical animation provides easily-understood reference points3 for any development team and their associates, while instilling a powerful impression in the mind of any potential investor.

And then of course, any pharmaceutical product or medical device needs to be presented to the most appropriate potential customers in the most appropriate way.

3D animations provide engaging, memorable and often entertaining impressions of how medical devices work, or how specific drug molecules react and interact with individual cells, and one of the most educational and entertaining examples – which was enjoyed by a television audience made up of medical professionals and the general public alike – was the BBC’s “Secret Universe: The Hidden Life of the Cell”.4

One of the biggest advantages of demonstrating what happens at molecular level through 3D animations is the facility to show exactly what the educator, the developer or the marketer wants their audience to see – nothing more, nothing less.

And even time can be slowed down or speeded up to demonstrate actions, reactions and interactions that much more clearly.

One classic example of molecular animation – produced on Australia’s then-fastest supercomputer – is the simulation of the movement of the human rhinovirus, thought to be responsible for up to half the occurrences of the common cold.

Although a cold usually means nothing more than a few days’ inconvenience, it can seriously complicate conditions such as asthma, cystic fibrosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
So researchers at the University of Melbourne created a 3D model of the rhinovirus, described as “a bit like a nest of earthworms surrounded by brightly-coloured gummy candy” as part of a research project focusing on an experimental drug created by a pharmaceutical company by the name of Biota.5

Then again, 3D medical animations can also not only assist in promotion and education separately, they can do both at the same time. They can help medical professionals understand what’s being sold to them enough for them to be able to pass that understanding on to patients in order to educate – or as is often the case before any decision is made to operate – reassure them.
And as for 40% of the human cerebral cortex being devoted to vision, the question arises as to which is the better way of attracting attention at a conference, convention or trade show.
Would it be static graphics representing a company, its products and perhaps its values … or a big, colourful, motion-rich 3D animation, featuring movement and colours which automatically catch the eye of passers-by and then evoke enough curiosity to investigate more closely?

Along those lines, while the quality of any 3D medical animation says a great deal about the quality of the organisation that commissioned it, the true measure of any kind of 3D animation has to be how well it conveys information – and how well the audience responds to that information.

In short, no matter how impressive John Kendrew’s now somewhat primitive 3D sculpture of myoglobin’s atomic structure might have been once he’d finally completed it, it wouldn’t have sold much in the way of pharmaceuticals or medical devices back in the 1960s, and it certainly wouldn’t sell any at all today…
… but it definitely helped everyone fortunate enough to see it understand what happens at the molecular level.


1 – Churchill’s Scientists exhibition: http://blogs.nature.com/aviewfromthebridge/2015/01/23/churchills-scientists/

2 – 40% visual: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3071847/#R5

3 – Molecular reference points: https://www.theguardian.com/science/occams-corner/2015/jun/08/all

4 – BBC’s Hidden Life of the Cell: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01nln7d

5 – Rhinovirus model: http://www.zco.com/blog/3d-model-puts-common-cold-in-researchers-sights/

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