LAWRENCE, Kan., Oct. 5 (UPI) -- The creation of 3D computer model of a human cell would be a monumental breakthrough for biological research and medical science. According to a new study, advancements in molecular biology and computer science suggest such a breakthrough isn't far off.
"Recently, there has been tremendous progress in biomolecular modeling and advances at understanding life at the molecular level," Ilya Vakser, professor of computational biology and molecular biosciences at the University of Kansas, said in a news release.
Vakser is one of the co-authors of the new study, published this week in the Journal of Molecular Biology.
"Now, the focus is shifting to larger systems -- up to the level of the entire cell," Vakser said. "We're trying to capture this emerging milestone development in computational structural biology, which is the tectonic shift from modeling individual biomolecular processes to modeling the entire cell."
While some researchers have attempted to build automated 3D whole cell models, most models focus on specific intercellular processes and components -- protein complexes, protein interactions, membranes, chromosomes, thermodynamic and kinetic systems.
Researchers believe they're getting closer to fitting these individual models together in a coherent way.
"A lot of techniques that are required for this are already available -- it's just a matter of putting them all together in a coherent strategy to address this problem," Vakser said. "It's hard because we're just beginning to understand the principal mechanisms of life at the molecular level -- it looks extremely complicated but doable, so we're moving very fast -- not only in our ability to understand how it works at the molecular level but to model it."
The most obvious benefit of an accurate 3D cell model would be the ability to study the underlying mechanisms of human disease and to test the efficacy of treatments.
"It will give us ... the ability to understand mechanisms of drug action, which will be a tremendous boost to our efforts at drug design" Vakser said. "It will help us create better drug candidates, which will potentially shorten the path to new drugs."
While scientists hope to soon model human cells, the digital replication of a simpler cell -- like prokaryotic cells -- remains the first priority.
"We're trying to cut our teeth on the smallest possible cellular organisms first, then will extrapolate into more complicated cells," Vakser concluded.