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

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.