From Hollywood to healthcare: How 3-D modeling is shaping drug development

The rise of three-dimensional modeling software has changed how Hollywood studios make movies, architects plan skyscrapers and sportswear companies design running shoes. Now, the same software and design principles are changing how researchers develop drug delivery vehicles.

In a design context, DNA is just a building block with predictable structural possibilities, such as the double-helix shape. String together enough DNA base pairs on a long-enough scaffold and the DNA will twist into a 3-D shape with certain biological characteristics. "At the biological scale, you can't separate shape from function. Shape defines function at the atomic scale. Why does one protein do something and why does another do something else? It's all amino acids," Wyss Institute researcher Shawn Douglas told Wired.

The sequencing of the amino acids--and the shape they form--dictates how proteins interact with the body. Douglas made an open-source program, cadnano, for designing DNA origami structures and subsequently attracted the attention of 3-D modeling business Autodesk ($ADSK). Cadnano is now integrated into Mayo, Autodesk's animation software, turning the 2-D base pair sequences users create into 3-D models of the protein.

Last year, Douglas co-authored a paper in Science that described the use of cadnano to create a drug delivery nanorobot. The clamshell design could theoretically deliver a therapeutic payload to tumor cells. Modeling software is central to understanding how the nanorobot will interact with the body. "The angle of how these things work is critically important. It's like a lock and key. This enzyme has to fit on this cell the right way in order to bias the cell," Autodesk's chief technology officer Jeff Kowalski said. Kowalski began to investigate the use of modeling software on nanoscales 7 years ago. Now, the 'bio-nano group' this investigation spawned is expanding and on the verge of moving to new offices in San Francisco.

- read the Wired feature
- check out Douglas' paper (PDF)

Special Report: The Future of Nanotech Drug Delivery