Cell explorers reach the peak of virtual reality

29 September 2020

Imagine exploring a 3D representation of a real cancer cell, about 10 million times smaller than the naked eye can usually see, by ‘shrinking’ yourself to 1000th the size of a human hair.

This new virtual reality (VR) experience at The University of Queensland has brought together experts in cell biology, nanomedicine, 3D computer visualisation and video game design from UQ, Monash University and the University of New South Wales, and is in the running for a 2020 Australian Museum Eureka Prize.

As we generate more and more data, which is increasingly complex, there is an urgent need to develop new ways of analysing it.

Researchers are using VR to solve the problem of visualising complex data, making it easier to understand for both scientists and the general public.

A new way to interact with biological data

Professor Robert Parton from UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience said researchers are often working with 3D or 4D information, for example, when analysing cancers, which is difficult to present on 2D monitors or in print.

Professors Robert Parton and Kristofer Thurecht are finalists in the Eureka Prizes.

“Not only did we want to develop a completely new way for people to interact with complex biological data, but also translate this data so it is understandable to experts across several fields, and can also excite and enthuse non-experts,” he said. 

“We generated a new platform, BioNanoVR, to represent 3D and 4D datasets in a way that allows interactive exploring of the data by multiple users in real time.”

Exploring the virtual cell environment

“VR  allows the user to experience a cell in action—they can interact with, and understand, how the cell operates by moving through a virtual cell environment in which every aspect reflects actual scientific data, not simply an animation.”

Professor Kristofer Thurecht, from UQ’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology and Centre for Advanced Imaging, is an expert in nanomedicine, targeting nanoparticles carrying specific cargoes to tumours.

His group generates vast quantities of images from molecular imaging work – think of the challenges of keeping track of your family photos at home, and then imagine generating thousands of high-resolution images daily at work.

Seeing individual nanoparticles

“Instead of sitting in my office and going through thousands and thousands of two-dimensional images, I can put on the VR headset and see them all merged and extract the data that I need from just a single VR image—it's very powerful.

“The BioNanoVR allows us to see individual nanoparticles in mice with tumours—we can explore a 3D image of a mouse which also has a 4th dimension so we can also see the effect of time which is crucial for tracking nanoparticles in the body.”

The Australian Museum Eureka Prizes are the country’s most comprehensive national science awards, honouring excellence across the areas of research & innovation, leadership, science engagement, and school science.

The BioNanoVR team are finalists for the 2020 ANSTO Eureka Prize for Innovative Use of Technology. The award ceremony will be on November 24.