Photo credit: Alexandre Kitching

Scientists create a virtual reality software that makes it possible to ‘walk’ inside and assess individual cells. This would make it possible to comprehend basic problems in biology and create new treatments for disease.

The software, dubbed vLUME, was developed by scientists at the University of Cambridge and 3D image analysis software company Lume VR Ltd. It enables super-resolution microscopy data to be visualised and assessed in virtual reality, and can be utilized to study everything from distinctive proteins to entire cells.

Super-resolution microscopy, which was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2014, allows scientists to collect images at the nanoscale by utilizing smart devices of physics to get around the limits imposed by light diffraction. This enables researchers to examine molecular procedures as they occur.

“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 Dr Steven F. Lee from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry, who led the research. “It wasn’t until we started seeing our data in virtual reality that everything clicked into place.”

The vLUME project begun when Lee and his team met with the Lume VR founders at a public engagement occasion at the Science Museum in London. While Lee’s group had knack in super-resolution microscopy, the team from Lume were experts in spatial computing and data analysis, and jointly they developed vLUME into a significant 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.”

“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 researchers are primarily using vLUME with biological datasets, like neurons, immune cells or cancer cells. For instance, Lee’s team has been researching 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. This software allows researchers to explore, analyse, segment and share their data in new ways. All you need is a VR headset.”

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