It is borderline science fiction, but still an exciting reality in the field of biotechnology innovation. Scientists at the University of Cambridge along with a 3D image analysis software firm have developed a virtual reality (VR) system that enables researchers to analyse individual cells by walking inside them — virtually.
The software, called vLUME, could help researchers learn more about problems in biology and even figure out new treatments for diseases. Created by Cambridge researchers and the London-based Lume VR Ltd, this software can visualise super-resolution microscopy data, which can be then analysed in virtual reality. Super-resolution microscopy is a series of optical techniques that makes it possible to obtain images at the nanoscale. Through this technology, which was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2014, researchers can study sub-cellular structures in greater detail. But a stumbling block has been the lack of ways to visualise and analyse this data in three dimensions.
“Biology occurs in 3D, but until now it has been difficult to interact with the data on a 2D computer screen in an intuitive and immersive way,” Dr Steven F. Lee from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry, who led the research, explains in an official news release. “It wasn’t until we started seeing our data in virtual reality that everything clicked into place.”
Lee’s group at Cambridge specialises in super-resolution microscopy and worked on the vLUME software with the Lume VR team, which has an expertise in spatial computing and data analysis. Alexandre Kitching, CEO of Lume, says the imaging software brings humans into the nanoscale. “It allows scientists to visualise, question and interact with 3D biological data, in real time all within a virtual reality environment, to find answers to biological questions faster,” he adds in the release. Further details and research on the software was published in the journal Nature Methods earlier this week.
VR has made some massive in-roads in the field of medical research and provided a new mode of analysis for modern science as well. For example, the technology is being used in everything from planning surgeries to detecting early signs of Alzheimer’s. Some recent research has also found that VR can be effective in building balance skills in patients diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
With vLUME, there are more exciting possibilities in store. Anoushka Handa, a PhD student from Lee’s group, used the software to image an immune cell taken from her own blood, and then stood inside her own cell in virtual reality, the release explains. All this with just a VR headset and a pair of controllers.
As of now, the team at Cambridge is using vLUME with biological datasets — this includes neurons, immune cells or cancer cells. Lee’s group, for instance, has also been studying how antigen cells trigger an immune response in the body. “Through segmenting and viewing the data in vLUME, we’ve quickly been able to rule out certain hypotheses and propose new ones,” he adds.