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Another element the GPU provides is programmable shading technologies. Material properties, set by the scientist, make the molecule easier to view. Color and lighting effects are added that help enhance the image and make more easily recognized.
"You create a particular light and color," NVIDIA's Brown explains. "Things become more intuitive and easier to view. It helps you get away from numbers and to the human eye. The GPU is capable of assigning a huge range of colors and light. The scientists tell the GPU what properties and where the light source is. They're looking for particular surface features—how the molecules move, how strong the bond is, how likely they are to stay together."
As researchers look at the binding between drugs and their target receptor molecules, they can also characterize how mutations that occur in HIV, cancer or influenza affect binding. Stereo visualization allows for a better understanding of what happens at the atomic level, which ultimately enables the creation of new drugs.
"The GPU is a tool for those guys to run the math on and visualize what they're doing," Brown says. "A picture is worth a thousand math calculations."
And yet, the process is not an overnight success. "It still takes 10-12 years and upwards of a billion dollars," says Rizzo. "It's still an incredibly complex and difficult process. The technology does make it easier, but it's not a magic bullet. It's all a collaborative process. Stereo visualization technologies help make it visible and more understandable."