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.”