Taking a walk inside a cancer cell

14 Feb 2017

Researchers are known to immerse themselves in their science but, as Dr Amelia Parker found, Virtual Reality (VR) takes that notion to a whole new level.

Wearing headgear, ear phones and with two hand-held controllers, tumour biologist Dr Amelia Parker steps carefully on to the undulating surface of a cancer cell. Its pocked surface was modelled using real data from electron microscope images.

A spiky nanoparticle containing a cancer drug floats down to the cell’s surface. Amelia uses a controller to teleport herself closer to watch it descend through an open pore in the cell surface. This remarkable scene shows nanomedicines at work, safely delivering the cancer drugs where they’re needed.

She follows the particle inside where, surrounded by cell organelles arranged like undersea rocks and coral, she brushes up against a mitochondrion, the cell’s energy source.

“I can hear it zapping” she says. “And a narrator is explaining what mitochondria do”

Amelia’s earphones are playing an Interstellar-inspired soundtrack with bubbling sounds and other effects. The sound for the multisensory experience was developed by an audio engineer.

3D visualisation of the inside of a cancer cell. Mitochondria are orange. Image: John McGhee, UNSW

3D visualisations bring data to life

This amazing cancer cell virtual reality (VR) visualisation is the handiwork of UNSW’s Associate Professor John McGhee in a collaboration with the ARC Centre of Excellence in Convergent Bio-nano Science and Technology. The visualisation, Journey to the Centre of the Cell, aims to speed up science discovery by improving understanding for medical researchers, students and patients. John’s team use 3D computer animation to bring complex biomedical data to life.

Amelia, of Children’s Cancer Institute’s Tumour Biology and Targeting team and the ARC Centre, is hoping a future visualisation will allow people to literally walk alongside cell skeletons and observe their role in cancer.

“My research showed how changes to one particular tubulin protein can affect cytoskeleton behaviour, especially βIII tubulin, a cytoskeletal protein associated with aggressive cancers.

There’s still a lot to learn about changes in structure and dynamics of these tubulin proteins and the hundreds of proteins they interact with in a cancer cell. VR could help communicate the need for that research”.

Dr Amelia Parker researches the skeletons of cancer cells

VR for research and education

VR offers a way to explore the dynamic and complex internal environment of cancer cells. It has several applications including educating school and university students and engaging the wider public in science. And such immersive experiences are becoming more accessible. With the falling price of headsets, and the computer graphics cards they rely on, VR technology is becoming well within reach. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets are now just over $1K and no longer the new kids on the block at consumer electronics shows.

Amelia’s verdict on her VR experience?

“It was amazing!”

The future of VR in research and education is still to be fully charted but it’s sure to inspire.

Read more about Amelia’s research on cell skeletons.

Top image: Dr Amelia Parker teleports onto a cancer cell in a 3D visualisation created by A/Prof John McGhee, UNSW.