VR could drastically effect how researchers study cancer.
Doctors at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute (CRUK) are creating a new virtual lab that will build use VR to build 3D models of tumor samples, providing a new way to look at cancer.
The researchers start by studying a tumor tissue biopsy – the researchers have started by looking at breast cancer – which is then sliced wafer-thin and stained with markers, like what would normally be examined under a standard microscope. In this process, however, the samples are instead scanned by a computer program which creates an interactive 3D model to show their molecular make-up and DNA characteristics.
Researchers can use VR to manipulate the models and can even “fly through” the sample to see within the cells themselves in the hopes of gaining a clearer understanding.
“We want to create an interactive, faithful, 3D map of tumors that can be studied in virtual reality that scientists can ‘walk into’ and look at it in great detail,” said lead researcher Greg Hannon.
“No-one has examined the geography of a tumor in this level of detail before,” Hannon told the BBC, “it is a new way of looking at cancer.”
The simulation will let doctors analyze every cell of a tumor from the inside, something that has never been done before. And because that data is stored in a computer simulation rather than microscope slides, doctors around the world can explore and study cancer simultaneously — opening up the opportunity for more productive collaborations and improved treatments.
“Understanding how cancer cells interact with each other and with healthy tissue is critical if we are going to develop new therapies,” spoke CRUK Chief Scientist Karen Vousden. “Looking at tumors using this new system is so much more dynamic than the static 2D versions we are used to.”
This potential for enormous positive impact is why Hannon and his team were able to receive two multi-million dollar grants from CRUK. It’s also what makes the task so daunting.
“The amount of information we want to create is immense,” adds Hannon. “This is a level of information, given current technologies, that’s difficult for humans to understand and analyze. So we’re having to invent new ways to interact with this data. Our first pass at that is to try and take those large datasets, from a computer screen, and to present them in virtual reality.”
Since winning their first grant in 2017, Hannon and his team of 15 researchers and VR specialists have created the first 3D proof-of-principle model of early breast cancer, providing a realistic simulation which can support multiple users at the same time in VR.
Now, the team says they continuing to improve their sample analysis in preparation for uploading real patient data for the first time.
The project still has a few more years of development to go, but Hannon hopes to ultimately open his virtual lab doors to not only researchers, but doctors, students and patients by creating mixed reality experiences that allow for a similar, spatial-focused approach towards examining tumors; a potentially beneficial tool for determining treatments and learning more about cancer.