Above image: Screenshot from video accompanying press release at / Credit: UNSW

Above image: Screenshot from video accompanying press release at / Credit: UNSW

Virtual reality technology developed at UNSW allows multiple scientists to simultaneously ‘walk’ through cells

Researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) have developed a multi-user virtual reality (VR) technology that allows multiple scientists to see inside a human cell at the same time. This is intended to provide researchers a three-dimensional tool to improve doctor interaction and help analyse how cancer drugs work.

UNSW Art & Design’s Associate Professor John McGhee is collaborating with Professor Maria Kavallaris, from UNSW Medicine and Children’s Cancer Institute on the project. They are investigators in the ARC Centre of Excellence in Convergent Bio-Nano Science & Technology (CBNS). They are now in the second phase of the Journey to the Centre of the Cell project, an initiative that combines scientific data, microscopy images and animation to create a virtual reality (VR) world of cells and blood vessels that can be seen through headsets.

The system takes data from scanning (such as serial block-face scanning electron microscope imaging data) and visualises the dynamic component over time. Rather than looking down a microscope at a two-dimensional image, researchers can move around and be immersed in the data represented as a three-dimensional image in virtual reality. 

Until now, individual researchers could go into their data with single VR headsets. Now, multiple users from different parts of the world can ‘walk’ inside the landscape of the cell at the same time and annotate and interact with their data simultaneously. The scientists can almost touch and feel the cell, travel through it and around it and look at the structures within the cells. This could allow scientists to be much more collaborative.

Kavallaris, a leading cancer biology researcher and nanomedicine expert, says tracking 3D cells in tumours can show scientists what happens when cells move in real time – information that can be used when looking at the spread of cancer.

The movement of nano-particles can be tracked as they enter the tumour. This enables highlighting of the area that can be targeted with radiotherapy or chemotherapy. Ultimately this will assist in the development of new types of cancer drugs and their accurate deployment.  

Above image: Screenshot from video accompanying press release; video features animation by Associate Prof. John McGhee, Dr. Andrew Lilja and John Bailey/ Credit: UNSW

Associate Prof. McGhee and CBNS Co-Chief Investigator Professor Kavallaris are focussing on educating researchers on how cells function and at the way drugs are internalised by cancer cells.

“We have never had access to something like this before. We hope it will help scientists better understand how and what happens if you interfere with a genetic process and add certain drugs. Eventually it could be a tool to explain to patients and their parents about types of cancer and strategies for treatment,” said Professor Kavallaris.

The technology is already being trialled on Monash University pharmaceutical science students learning about cancer drug delivery to see if it improves their understanding.

"We've now got data that shows by putting a headset on and walking in virtual reality, we have seen a significant improvement in their exam results, compared to others who were using traditional media," Associate Prof. McGhee said.

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