University College London has been ranked among the top 10 universities in the world for 12 years running. Its School of Pharmacy is ranked 4th in the world by the QS Ranking for Pharmacy and Pharmacology in 2023. But how does it remain such a world-leading institution?
The answer may lie with the forward-thinking team in the school’s Molecular Pharmacy wing. A project to digitize their labs in 2019 gathered pace during the pandemic, blurring the lines between the digital and the physical to create a positive reaction never seen before.
This is the story of Dr. Stephen Hilton and his team, and how they have used VR to support world-class research.
The research challenges UCL School of Pharmacy faces
Dr Hilton had always been a fan of technology and started to explore 3D printing to cut costs. Tired of expensive equipment and long wait times for deliveries, the UCL team turned to CAD to create digital twins of items in the lab, eventually sharing and developing designs through VR. “It was really on a basis of need that we started using 3D printing,” Dr Hilton explains.
Today, flask holders, gel combs and customized clips are designed in VR and 3D printed at a fraction of the cost. “Little things that hold a flask cost £20 to £30; we print our own for 50 pence,” says Dr Hilton. He believes the savings from 3D printing equipment, which is now designed and developed using VR, run to over £600,000.
But that’s only the start. Dr Hilton’s most exciting work with Quest headsets came when he started digitizing his lab in 2019, learning how to program in Unreal Engine, and developing his own software: Lab 427.
How the UCL School of Pharmacy uses VR
There are around 160 Meta Quest 2 headsets at the School of Pharmacy, with 40 in Dr Hilton’s office or loaned to schools, and the remaining 120 in UCL’s other labs and offices.
Here’s how the devices are used:
1. Product development
It’s not just smaller items around the lab that the UCL team have used their CAD skills for. By pairing design with VR, they have also developed new, groundbreaking products.
The School of Pharmacy partnered with lab equipment specialists IKA, to develop the IKA FLOW, a flow chemistry system that offers the same functionality as alternatives on the market with added customization and available to buy at a significantly lower price.
The process involved regular communication with engineers in Germany and the US using Meta Quest headsets. Stakeholders were able to immerse themselves in CAD designs and give real-time feedback. Parts were 3D-printed on both sides of the Atlantic rather than shipped to make things run more quickly. In all, the development of the system from concept to the final product took two years thanks to the ability to transfer information quickly.
“Without VR it would have been 4 to 5 weeks before anything happened but now it's instantaneous. So a piece of equipment like the IKA FLOW would have taken 5 to 10 years to develop. Combining VR with 3D printing has made a massive difference. Those are the key technologies which are really crucial.” — Dr Stephen Hilton, UCL
Dr Hilton has not only digitized Lab 427, he has also applied his CAD skills to building a virtual flow chemistry institute. The building allows the School of Pharmacy to collaborate with partners across the globe, from the Innovation and Sustainability Chemistry Consortium (ISCC) in India to universities in Ottawa, Kansas and Loughborough.
The multi-purpose institute is home to conference facilities and has helped scientists rethink how information is shared and fast-tracked their research.
“VR has changed our lives entirely. We can meet up and discuss reactions in real-time, to make telemetry standardized. VR makes chemistry uniform across the globe. Either partners run their own chemistry reactions, or we send equipment. It’s in their labs but we see the live telemetry of what’s going on in their reaction.” — Dr Stephen Hilton, UCL
The School of Pharmacy has integrated AI avatars into their virtual space too, digitally recreating the Lab 427 team to improve communication with partners 24 hours a day, in different time zones.
VR and research at UCL: The results
VR has supercharged the School of Pharmacy’s ability to share information with international peers and accelerated their research. Perhaps the School’s greatest achievement so far has been the development of their innovative chemistry flow system, something that would never have been possible without Meta Quest headsets.
“The IKA FLOW would have died a death during Covid without VR.” — Dr Stephen Hilton, UCL
VR hasn’t served as a mere communication tool, it’s also changed the way scientists at UCL think. For Dr Hilton, it’s the combination of VR and 3D printing, of VR and digitally connected labs, or the blurring of the physical and the virtual, that’s most exciting. The scientists have been given the freedom to rethink their surroundings and develop new equipment:
“We’ve developed a syringe pump that’s also a fraction collector. The combination of VR and 3D printing makes you think differently and manufacture new equipment. Instead of having two machines we now have one. Everyone here thinks slightly differently about how to do things because we can digitize anything and make anything.”
VR has even changed the content of PhD students’ research:
“Six months ago everyone planned their 3 chapters for their PhD but now they’ve updated them to include VR. It’s changed everything and we never thought we’d be here 6 months ago.” — Dr Stephen Hilton, UCL