24 October 2020

The capacity of modern-day medicine to treat illness is undeniable. Clinical care is constantly evolving, with current interventions revolutionising the way medicine is practiced. Improved digital technologies and informatics has been central in fuelling healthcare advancements.

Indeed, state-of-the-art surgeries have reduced related complications and internal illness can be non-invasively visualised through imaging modalities almost instantaneously.1 Consequentially, across almost all illnesses, positive medical outcomes have soared. Such cutting-edge innovations and positively associated effects would not have been possible without a solid digital-technologies-based foundation.

I am aware however, that it is very easy to make sweeping statements and just expect everyone to concede to your view. It is far more beneficial to support opinions with real-life research. So, let’s dissect what’s been said a little.

I think most of us are aware that, for the most part, the drugs and treatments that we have now did not exist at the start of the last century. Many, in fact, didn’t exist at the start of this one. Let’s focus on one condition to explain the impact informatics has had on medical interventions and thus a patient’s quality of life. I believe a prime example to use, is the evolution of HIV treatment.

Although understanding how such drug interventions work, I want to focus on how we came to develop and utilise them for purpose.

Despite its past status as a death sentence, HIV is now a highly manageable chronic condition where most patients can have a normal quality of life.2 The wonder drugs behind this all: antiretroviral therapies (ARTs).3 However, we did not stumble across these treatments by chance though. As with most aspects of science and medicine, there was collaboration between multiple disciplines in order to hunt for cure.

You guessed it: computing was involved!

Computer aided drug discovery (CAAD) was established as a field in the early 80’s4 and has revolutionised the way pharmaceuticals have been developed since. CAAD is used throughout the drug design process focussing on many processes including:5

  1. What the virus looks like to see where drugs might be able to bind to it.
  2. What the drugs look like to see if they have any parts that would allow them to bind to the virus.
  3. What properties the drug might have that would allow it to be effective in ‘killing’ the virus or alleviating any adverse effects the virus has on a patient.
  4. Looking to see how the virus interacts with the cells in the body to better understand how it elicits its harmful effect.

Despite these ARTs revolutionary role in medicine, they are far from perfect. As with all chronic illnesses, the side-effects experienced from the treatmen increase over time.6 Additionally, the occurrence of drug resistance also increases.3 It is therefore obvious that prevention is better than cure. The same principles used for drug discovery are also being applied to vaccine development.

The techniques used to revolutionise HIV treatment are applicable to all drug discovery and development trials. Indeed, for the most part initial treatments will be suboptimal and require fine-tuning which can be done at the bench in a laboratory and behind a computer screen. Both modes are essential. I hope this explanation of just one example, has now made apparent the role of computing in fuelling the way modern medicine as a whole is practiced.


  1. Eizenberg, N. Anatomy and its impact on medicine: Will it continue? Australas Med J. 2015; 8(12):373–377.
  2. Brainard, D., Cihlar, T., Geleziunas, R. & SenGupta, D. HIV: progress and future challenges in treatment, prevention and cure. Nat Research.
  3. Gu, W.G., Zhang, X. & Yuan, J.F. Anti-HIV drug development through computational methods. AAPS J. 2014; 16(4):674-80.
  4. Osakwe, O. The Significance of Discovery Screening and Structure Optimization Studies. In: Social Aspects of Drug Discovery, Development and Commercialization. Academic Press; 2016.
  5. Macalino, S.J.Y., Gosu, V., Hong, S. & Choi, S. Role of computer-aided drug design in modern drug discovery. Arch. Pharm. Res. 2015; 38:1686–1701.
  6. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIH). Antiretroviral Drug Discovery and Development. [Accessed 20th October 2020].

Caitlin-Stuart-DelavaineAbout the author

I achieved a First-Class Honours in Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh, graduating in 2017. Following this, I worked in the Clinical Neuroscience Department at The University of Cambridge. I am currently in my third year of studying Medicine at The University of Glasgow. I am interested in the role of online platforms in medical education and science communication and research.

Caitlin's LinkedIn profile