Cambridge researchers use VR software to take a tour inside of their own cells

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have developed software that takes super-resolution microscope scans and transforms them into a virtual, 3D worlds, allowing scientists to don a virtual reality headset and take an interactive tour of individual cells and proteins.

They hope the program can provide a new tool that can put a person inside their own samples, for visually analyzing the mechanics of disease and aiding in the development of new treatments.

Dubbed vLUME, the software starts with nanoscale images of live cells’ molecular processes, providing millions of data points to build models of neurons, immune cells or cancer cells.

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“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 Lee, a research team leader in Cambridge’s department of chemistry. “It wasn’t until we started seeing our data in virtual reality that everything clicked into place.”

Lee’s group is currently using the program to study how antigen-presenting cells trigger the body’s immune response. “Through segmenting and viewing the data in vLUME, we’ve quickly been able to rule out certain hypotheses and propose new ones,” he said. “This software allows researchers to explore, analyse, segment and share their data in new ways. All you need is a VR headset.”

While Cambridge scientists provided expertise in super-resolution microscopy—a range of techniques used to optically image subcellular structures with incredible levels of detail—the 3D software company Lume VR delivered support in spatial computing, data analysis and visualization.

“vLUME is revolutionary imaging software that brings humans into the nanoscale,” Lume CEO Alexandre Kitching said. “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.”

In addition, researchers can also use the program to share their work with other collaborators, using image and video recording features. The team published their work in the journal Nature Methods.

“Data generated from super-resolution microscopy is extremely complex,” Kitching added. “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.”

For example, a PhD student in Lee’s group, Anoushka Handa, used the software to virtually stand inside an immune cell taken from her own blood. “It’s incredible—it gives you an entirely different perspective on your work,” she said.