A new trend in scientific research is to use videogame technology to simulate human tissue.

Wake Forest University researchers are using graphics processing units (GPUs), the technology that makes videogame images so realistic, to simulate the inner workings of human cells.

Dr. Samuel Cho, a biophysicist and computer scientist, said the popularity of video games has also been a godsend in helping to drop the price of the GPUs so that they can now be used for research.

Furthermore, the technology now allows Cho to see exactly how the cells live, divide and die. And that, he said, opens up possibilities for new targets for tumor-killing drugs.

Cho’s most recent computer simulation, of a critical RNA molecule that is a component of the human telomerase enzyme, illuminates previously unknown hidden states in the folding and unfolding of this molecule.

The results of his research appear in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

The human telomerase enzyme is found only in cancerous cells. It adds tiny molecules called telomeres to the ends of DNA strands when cells divide — essentially preventing cells from dying.

“The cell keeps reproducing over and over, and that’s the very definition of cancer,” Cho said. “By knowing how telomerase folds and functions, we provide a new area for researching cancer treatments.”

The visual representation gives scientists a far more accurate view of how the molecule functions. This, in turn, can allow the development of new medications that can block the action of the enzyme and potentially stop the growth of cancerous cells.

Specifically, a new drug would stop the human telomerase enzyme from adding onto the DNA, so the tumor cell dies.

Cho is currently exploring the use of videogaming technology to investigate bacterial ribosome — a molecular system 200 times larger than the human telomerase enzyme RNA molecule.

His research group has begun to use graphics cards called GPUs to perform these cell simulations, which is much faster than using standard computing.

“We have hijacked this technology to perform simulations very, very quickly on much larger biomolecular systems,” Cho said.

Without the GPUs, Cho estimated it would have taken him more than 40 years to program that simulation. Amazingly, use of the technology will allow the research to be performed in only a few months.

Source: Wake Forest University