Software at the heart of the matter

Sally Croft

Pharmaceutical companies spend millions developing new drugs but around half of all candidates never make it to market because they are discovered to have an adverse effect on the human heart. The most common problem is arrhythmia – abnormal beating – which can occasionally prove fatal, so pharmaceutical regulators demand strict testing standards and clinical trials before new medicines are released. Even then, a significant number of drugs are subsequently withdrawn because of previously undetected side effects.

Researchers at the University of Oxford have developed computer models that can simulate the effects of pharmacological compounds on the electrophysiology of heart cells, thus flagging up problems and ruling out unsuitable candidates early in the drug development process. In 2014 they turned to OCC to help them transform their ‘Virtual Assay’ research software into a commercial product for the pharmaceutical industry.

‘The researchers’ original software used C++ code and Matlab to process huge quantities of typed-in data. It was fine for academic purposes, but needed to be more visual and more user-friendly to be attractive to pharmaceutical companies,’ explains Robert Pym, a team leader in OCC’s Innovation Delivery Team. ‘It became clear that what was wanted was both a corporate application and something that could continue as an academic tool. Our challenge was to deliver something that worked in both places’

As well as working to thoroughly understand the process, the requirements of the project inspired OCC to create a user interaction team – today, OCC’s UX Design Studio – to gain a deep understanding of user needs and work with colleagues across the company to match those needs to project goals.

Virtual Assay I, which became available in September 2014, was the first step towards commercialisation. OCC has continued to work alongside the research team led by Professor Blanca Rodriguez to debug and upgrade the product. ‘We divide the work into two-week sections and meet up with the client every two weeks to look at where we go next,’ says Pym. ‘It gives us an opportunity for course correction and helps the client focus beyond the academic need for data for research papers and think in detail about what’s needed if you’re using the system every day as part of your job.’ Virtual Assay II, a product that can now be actively marketed, is launched this month.

As ‘in silico’ drug evaluation advances, it promises a future where not only could animal testing become redundant, but we could all be prescribed individually validated medicines, guaranteed safe for you personally.

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