Virtual reality puts the spotlight on youth cancer

A new research project will allow patients and researchers to ‘see’ the drivers of cancer in virtual reality.

In plain sight: Gene variants that promote cancer (red) block the tumour suppressor protein p53 (dark grey) from repairing damaged DNA.

20 February 2019

Professor Sean O’Donoghue at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research has been awarded a $240,000 research project grant from the Sony Foundation and Tour de Cure to develop a tool that helps young cancer patients better understand their condition and gives researchers new insight into the molecular changes that drive cancer growth.

Professor O’Donoghue will be working with fellow chief investigators Professor David Thomas (Garvan Institute of Medical Research), Dr Matt Adcock (CSIRO’s Data61), as well as Dr Mark Cowley (Children’s Cancer Institute) and Start VR to deliver the project.

Technology giving hope

In Australia, around a thousand people aged 15 to 25 are diagnosed with cancer every year. Many of these patients are affected by rare cancer types, for which treatment options are limited.

To better understand these youth cancers, Professor O’Donoghue hopes to help researchers uncover the molecular processes that underlie them, by visualising the molecules inside cancerous cells in three dimensions.

Professor O’Donoghue’s team will draw on his team’s online resource Aquaria, which contains over 100 million ‘snapshots’ of molecules as they move and carry out their function within the cell. Starting with genetic variations found through genomic sequencing of tumours, the new tool will automatically identify affected molecular states that may lead to cancer. Visualising this information in an easily accessible form will help researchers develop a better understanding of the molecular mechanisms underlying cancer development and growth, and how the cancer may be treated.

Discovering cancer in 3D

“The platform will allow researchers to more easily find and interactively explore dynamic molecular events relevant to the cancer in either individual patients, or in groups of patients,” says Professor O’Donoghue.

“We will draw on our team’s expertise to develop computational methods that let patients and researchers ‘interact’ with 3D models of molecules in virtual reality using simple, intuitive hand gestures.”

The team’s project will also allow researchers focused on youth cancers to better communicate the drivers of rare cancers with other scientists, educators, students and medical professionals.

“Through our project, we hope to not only help youth cancer patients better understand their condition, but also to work towards better treatments by changing the way researchers see and think about the processes underlying cancer. We are excited and grateful for the opportunity to use the power of augmented and virtual reality to address such an important problem.”

Read the CSIROscope blog post.

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