New VR-technology allows scientists to “walk” inside human cells

The software, called vLUME, was created by scientists at the University of Cambridge and Lume VR Ltd., a company that develops 3D image analysis software. It allows visualizing and analyzing ultra-high resolution microscopy data in virtual reality and can be used to study everything from individual proteins to entire cells. Details have been published in Nature Methods magazine.

The ultra-high resolution microscopy, which won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2014, produces images on a nanoscale that ignores the limitations imposed by light diffraction. This allows scientists to observe molecular processes as they occur. However, the problem was the lack of ways to visualize and analyze these data in three dimensions.

“Biology exists in three-dimensional space, but until now it has been difficult to interact with data on a two-dimensional computer screen intuitively and with the effect of presence,” explains Dr. Stephen F. Lee of the Cambridge Department of Chemistry, who led the study. “It was only when we started to see our data in virtual reality that everything fell into place.

The vLUME project started when Lee and his team met with the founders of Lume VR at a public event at the Museum of Science in London. While Lee’s group had experience in ultra-high resolution microscopy, the team at Lume specialized in spatial computing and data analysis. Together, they were able to turn vLUME into a powerful new tool for studying complex data sets in virtual reality.

This view of data can stimulate new initiatives and ideas. For example, Anushka Handa, a PhD and Lee student, used software to image an immune cell taken from its own blood and then was inside her cell in virtual reality. “This gives you a completely different perspective on your work,” she shared her impressions.

The framework of the spectrum in neurons (Leterrier Lab, Marseille, France), displayed in vLume. Photo: Alexandre Kitching

The software allows loading several data sets and finds patterns using built-in clustering algorithms. These results can then be shared with colleagues around the world using the image and video functions in the software.

“Data obtained with ultra-high resolution microscopy is extremely complex,” said Alexander Kitching, CEO of Lume. “For scientists, it can take a very long time to analyze this data. With vLUME, we were able to significantly reduce waiting times, which allowed us to perform faster testing and analysis.