New virtual reality software allows scientists to ‘walk’ inside cells 

A new virtual reality system has been created that lets doctors take a Google Street View-style ‘walk’ through the cells inside the human body.

It is hoped that the technology will allow researchers to analyse individual cells and gain a deeper understanding of the fundamental problems in biology.

University of Cambridge scientists created the software, dubbed vLUM with 3D image analysis company Lume VR using super-resolution microscopy data.

The team say it was developed as a way to help researchers create new treatments for diseases by understanding how they spread through the body. 

Using the software, scientists can visualise and analyse data in virtual reality to study everything from individual proteins to entire cells. 

Anouska Handa (PhD) analysing her data in vLUM. The software allows users to ‘walk through’ cells in the human body using data captured via super-definition microscopy

DBScan analysis being performed a mature neuron in a typical vLUME workspace. Researchers can take their own '2D' data and visualise it in a 3D environment

DBScan analysis being performed a mature neuron in a typical vLUME workspace. Researchers can take their own ‘2D’ data and visualise it in a 3D environment

Super-resolution microscopy, which was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2014, makes it possible to obtain images at the nanoscale by using clever tricks of physics to get around the limits imposed by light diffraction. 

This has allowed researchers to observe molecular processes as they happen. 

However, a problem has been the lack of ways to visualise and analyse this data in three dimensions.

‘Biology occurs in 3D, but up until now it has been difficult to interact with the data on a 2D computer screen in an intuitive and immersive way,’ said Steven F. Lee.

‘It wasn’t until we started seeing our data in virtual reality that everything clicked into place,’ explained Lee, study lead author from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry.

The vLUME project started when Lee and his group met with the Lume VR founders at a public engagement event at the Science Museum in London. 

While Lee’s group had expertise in super-resolution microscopy, the team from Lume specialised in spatial computing and data analysis.

Together they were able to develop vLUME into a powerful new tool for exploring complex datasets in virtual reality.

‘vLUME is revolutionary imaging software that brings humans into the nanoscale,’ said Alexandre Kitching, CEO of Lume. 

‘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. It’s a new tool for new discoveries.’

Viewing data in this way can stimulate new initiatives and ideas, the team claim.

Super-resolution microscopy, which was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2014, makes it possible to obtain images at the nanoscale by using clever tricks of physics to get around the limits imposed by light diffraction

Super-resolution microscopy, which was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2014, makes it possible to obtain images at the nanoscale by using clever tricks of physics to get around the limits imposed by light diffraction

For example, Anoushka Handa – a PhD student from Lee’s group – used the software to image an immune cell taken from her own blood.

She was then able to stand inside her own cell in virtual reality, saying: ‘It’s incredible – it gives you an entirely different perspective on your work.’

The software allows multiple datasets with millions of data points to be loaded in and finds patterns in the complex data using in-built clustering algorithms. 

These findings can then be shared with collaborators worldwide using image and video features in the software.

Spectrin scaffold in neurons being imaged in vLume by researchers. The team are able to take data from a microscopy study and show it in 3D using a virtual reality headset

Spectrin scaffold in neurons being imaged in vLume by researchers. The team are able to take data from a microscopy study and show it in 3D using a virtual reality headset

The blue dot in the middle is the representation of a user studying a single whole T-cell in vLUME

The blue dot in the middle is the representation of a user studying a single whole T-cell in vLUME

‘Data generated from super-resolution microscopy is extremely complex,’ said Kitching. ‘For scientists, running analysis on this data can be very time consuming.’

‘With vLUME, we have managed to vastly reduce that wait time allowing for more rapid testing and analysis.’

The team are mostly using vLUME with biological datasets, such as neurons, immune cells or cancer cells and are currently examining how antigen cells trigger an immune response inside the human body. 

‘Through segmenting and viewing the data in vLUME, we’ve quickly been able to rule out certain hypotheses and propose new ones,’ said Lee. 

This software allows researchers to explore, analyse, segment and share their data in new ways. ‘All you need is a VR headset,’ Lee said.

 Details are published in the journal Nature Methods.

VIRTUAL REALITY EXPLAINED

Virtual reality is a computer-generated simulation of an environment or situation. 

  • It immerses the user by making them feel like they are in the simulated reality throughimages and sounds
  • For example, in VR, you could feel like you’re climbing a mountain while sat at home 

Virtual reality is the term used to describe A three-dimensional, computer generated environment which can be explored and interacted with by a person. 

That person becomes part of this virtual world or is immersed within this environment and whilst there, is able to manipulate objects or perform a series of actions.

How is virtual reality achieved? 

Virtual reality is usually implemented using computer technology. There are a range of systems that are used for this purpose, such as headsets, omni-directional treadmills and special gloves. 

These are used to actually stimulate our senses together in order to create the illusion of reality. 

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