By Alice Klein
I feel like I’ve landed on an alien planet. I’m walking across the surface of a breast cancer cell as drug nanoparticles whizz past my head like spaceships. One of the particles suddenly crashes in front of me, and I teeter on the edge of an abyss as it is sucked through the surface. It feels real – and in a sense, it is.
The cell I am exploring in virtual reality is not a conceptual model. John McGhee of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, and his colleagues have used high-resolution electron-microscope data to reconstruct a real-life cancer cell from a human breast in three-dimensional CGI.
I take a tour of the cell’s interior, tiptoeing around the nucleus, mitochondria and endosomes while they gently bob in the liquid cytosol.
McGhee’s idea is that chemists and cell biologists can put on a virtual-reality headset and get a better feel for the minuscule environments they are researching and engineering. For instance, they can watch virtual simulations of the different ways in which nanoparticle drugs are gobbled up by cancer cells, potentially aiding the drug-design process.
The technology succeeds in drawing me in. When it’s time to zoom back out to a human scale, I’m surprised to realise that full-size Alice has been padding around a 3-by-3-metre patch of carpet for the last 5 minutes.
Not just a gimmick
The next step is to find clinical applications for the technology. McGhee’s lab is conducting a study in which information from MRI and CT scans is used to create 3D virtual representations of the arteries of people who have had strokes. These people can then walk through their own arteries and see the size and locations of cholesterol build-up.
“It’s a bit of a blue-sky project, but if you could walk down your own aorta and see the arterial plaques, maybe it would improve your rehab and rate of recovery,” says McGhee.
Only three people have tested the technology so far, but the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, he says. “Before, they would be looking at a 2D scan in a doctor’s office, but now they can actually see what’s going on.”
The opportunities to help people understand the medical processes they undergo are broad, but it is important to have a firm grip on the line between fact and fiction, says McGhee.
“How much should you augment data in the pursuit of a narrative, and at what point do you lose sight of the science that started it all? These are the questions that keep us up at night.”