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New virtual reality project lets doctors fly through cancers to save lives



  • The ability to visualise and fly through cancers will help researchers create better treatments and better outcomes for cancer patients


In May this year, in a project that’s reminiscent of the US Army’s announcement to create digital avatars of its soldiers, Cancer Research UK will kick off a new multi-million pound project that, hopefully, by the end of the year will let oncologists and other cancer researchers walk through tumours in virtual reality (VR) and create better cancer treatments.


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Announced this week, and initially kicking off with breast cancer, the project’s aim is to develop a suite of VR and 3D visualisation tools that help hospital teams create, analyse and then walk through 3D maps of tumors in extreme detail – even down to the level of a cell’s particular genetic makeup. To start off with the system will be used to help doctors diagnose and treat cancers more effectively, then over time, Minority Report style, researchers will be able to zoom into particular areas, pull up genomic, Human Cell Atlas and other relevant data on the fly in VR, teleconference in other experts and much more, then as the system matures it’s envisaged that it will be used as an educational aid.



“I wasn’t very educated in VR when I started the project,” said Greg Hannon who’s leading one part of the project, “originally I was thinking about 3D projectors. I hadn’t paid too much attention to VR and had no idea how far consumer model VR devices had come. Then I had a conversation with an app developer who sits on a grants committee that I’m a part of. I was telling him about the project and he told me how far VR had come in just the past two to three years. He suggested I get in touch with a VR developer and game designer in Dublin, who we’ve ended up working with. That’s how the project really started.”

Despite the fact that the project’s not officially due to commence for another few months, Hannon said the team has already developed a “pretty highly functioning prototype” of the VR visualization system, but there’s still a lot more to do.


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“The harder bit is generating the data that will go into this,” he said, “we’re measuring things that have never been measured before, on a scale that’s never been measured. We’re hoping to have a couple of data sets of 100,000 cells sometime in the coming year. But to make something like this useful you have to do thousands of tumor samples. I think that about three years from now we’ll really be able to start extracting interesting and meaningful information.”

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