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New VR Software Allows Researchers to 'Walk' in Body Cells

New VR Software Allows Researchers to 'Walk' in Body Cells

Thursday, 15 October, 2020 - 05:30
Red blood cells in sickle-cell disease have a characteristic elongated shape. Image: Junior D. Kannah/AFP/Getty Images

A new virtual reality software developed by scientists at the University of Cambridge has allowed researchers to 'walk' inside and analyze individual cells. It could be used to understand fundamental problems in biology and develop new treatments for disease.

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 visualize and analyses this data in three dimensions.

The software, called vLUME, was created by scientists at the University of Cambridge and 3D image analysis software company Lume VR Ltd. It allows super-resolution microscopy data to be visualized and analyzed in virtual reality, and can be used to study everything from individual proteins to entire cells. Details are published in the journal Nature Methods.

"vLUME is revolutionary imaging software that brings humans into the nanoscale. It allows scientists to visualize, question, and interact with 3D biological data, in real-time all within a virtual reality environment, to find answers to biological questions faster," said Alexandre Kitching, CEO of Lume in a report published by the university.

Viewing data in this way can stimulate new initiatives and ideas. For example, researcher Anoushka Handa 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. "It's incredible. It gives you an entirely different perspective on your work," she said. The team is mostly using vLUME with biological datasets, such as neurons, immune cells, or cancer cells. For example, the group has 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," said Lee.

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