Using virtual reality for cancer research

Using virtual reality for cancer research

Screenshot of virtual reality prototype

A researcher’s vision to analyse genes of young cancer patients to personalise their treatment has now become a virtual reality.

Twenty years ago, Associate Professor Daniel Catchpoole from the Children's Cancer Research Unit, Kids Research, developed an idea to examine complex data and deliver precision medicine through an immersive experience.

Now, a prototype for ‘Virtual Reality for the Observation of Oncology Models’, VROOM for short, has been set up by the University of Technology, Sydney and Western Sydney University.

Presented with an abundance of tumour biological data, A/Prof Catchpoole, Head of Biospecimen Research Services at the Children’s Cancer Research Unit at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, said the goal is to find a way to use the data to predict the best treatment for the patient.

“It’s very Matrix-like; using virtual reality to allow clinicians to get right into the complex data and see things you couldn't see before or to see things differently,” he said.

Currently, cancer patients are assessed based on known clinical criteria that gauges their chance of a good response to known therapy options and groups them into ‘risk groups’.

VROOM aims for a more personalised approach, by providing the clinician with way of comparing their individual patient with the most biologically similar patients that have already been treated in the hospital, which will enable them to make a decision with more certainty on their treatment.

“You might be comparing a new patient to two other patients with similar genomic profiles, one patient which was treated a long time ago on the stock standard chemotherapy and it was very aggressive with lots of side effects, but they survived. The other patient may have been treated on new targeted therapy and it hasn't worked well for them,” A/Prof Catchpoole said. “It’s about being given actionable knowledge to make the best clinical decision for the new patient.”

The prototype uses immersive visualisation technology, utilising virtual reality headsets to interact directly with the complex data through input devices like wands, joysticks or data gloves. The clinician can then select the patients they want to compare and display specific gene activity data or clinical notes for those patients which is then displayed in more typical graph and maps to help them see the patterns and relationships that characterise their patients.

This cutting-edge system visually immerses the clinician in with the patients allowing them to deep dive into the data to understand more deeply how their patients compare with others.

“We needed a system where we could look at patients all at once, but also pull out individuals to make head-to-head comparisons of the samples, and then dealing with this complex data in an analytical way,” he said.

The paper has been published in Scientific Reports, after decades of work and with prototypes now in place, thanks to support from The Sony Foundation through the Tour de Cure charity, the next step is to see the system tested clinically and technologically.

Learn more about VROOM and the future of virtual reality for cancer research.