Virtual-reality tumour gives researchers a whole new way to study cancer

“I’d call a tumour an ecosystem,” says Professor Greg Hannon, of Cancer Research UK’s Cambridge Research Institute. It’s a description that emphasises the fact that cancer is not a monolithic growth to be squashed, but a complex community of cell types that interact with each other in ways we don’t yet fully understand.

At Cancer Research UK’s headquarters, Hannon explains a project that wants to use virtual reality to help researchers understand how tumour cells work alongside each other – a project that has just been awarded funding of up to £20 million, as part of Cancer Research’s £100 million Grand Challenge initiative.

“Thinking about the cancer cells as an evolving community”

“What we’re trying to do is look at that ecosystem as a whole,” explains Hannon. “Not only look at the host cell types, and not only thinking about the cancer cells, but thinking about the cancer cells as an evolving community.”

Two problems facing cancer researchers are how to capture the vast amounts of information that are held by a tumour’s ecosystem, and how to make sense of it. Hannon and an intercontinental team of researchers, doctors, patients, astronomers and game developers are setting out to address both these issues.

The aim is to make a 3D model of a patient’s tumour, as a spatial, intuitive means for researchers to study a wide variety of information about the sample – both in terms of individual cells, and how they interact with neighbours and host cells. To gather the data, specialised microscopes will be built from scratch, and the team will collect genetic information for each of the millions of cells that exist within a tumour.


The idea of a virtual-reality tumour may sound like an unnecessary gimmick in the fight against cancer, but Hannon explains that new ways of thinking about how to comprehend information are needed when you’re dealing with such large sets of data.

“The amount of information we want to create is immense,” he says. “This is a level of information, given current technologies, that’s difficult for humans to understand and analyse. So we’re having to invent new ways to interact with this data. Our first pass at that is to try and take those large datasets, from a computer screen, and to present them in virtual reality.”

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Virtual lab

I was able to try an early prototype of the project’s virtual component, developed in co-ordination with the creative studio Deep VR, for the HTC Vive. In it, a swarm of dots hovers above a lab space. This is the simulated tumour, based on publicly available data on tumour microenvironment, gene expression of different cell types, and on a mathematical simulation of tumour growth. Using the Vive’s controllers, I can pick it up, hold it in my hand, and put it to the side as I sort through tabs listing gene types. Swivelling around the ring of lab surfaces, I can plonk various categories onto plates that colour-code and highlight particular cells within the tumour.

A “Superman” setting on one console gave me the option to be immersed within the tumour, zipping through its intricate architecture. If I stopped and pointed at a specific cell, a panel would show me detailed information about what was in front of me. I’m no cancer researcher, so cannot attest to the truth or usefulness of what the data indicated, but the scale of information is undoubtedly impressive.

“How many things can you fit on a screen? The space you have available here is 5 x 5 x 5 metres, so you can literally be surrounded by data,” says Dr Dario Bressan, from the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute. “We’re very good as humans at interpreting colours, because we have developed to look for fruit on trees, so it’s very easy to spot patterns. You’re essentially looking at seven dimensions of data, and you’re not even feeling it. Doing that on a computer screen would be much more challenging.”


The prototype is intended to be an early example of the project’s potential, but future plans include allowing multiple users to work within the same virtual space, as well as creating mixed-reality experiences that allow for a similar, spatial-focused approach to examining tumours. And it’s not only researchers that could benefit – Hannon says he wants to give doctors, patients and students a new tool when determining treatments, or learning about what cancer is.

Building a ‘Google Earth’ of cancer

The other three winners of Cancer Research UK’s first Grand Challenge competition encompass a project that aims to better understand a precursor to breast cancer; a way to identify the causes of cancer by studying DNA “fingerprints”; and a way to build a Google Earth-like map of tumours.

The latter project, led by Dr Josephine Bunch from the UK National Physical Laboratory, shares the Cambridge Research Institute’s focus on providing tools for researchers to visualise cancer. Bunch’s team will use a number of new mass spectrometry imaging techniques to detail both the large- and small-scale makeup of tumours. Comparable to Google Earth, the idea is that scientists will be able to move easily between tissue, cellular and molecular levels of detail.

Each of the winning projects aims to tackle one of seven challenges, set up by Cancer Research UK. The organisation originally pledged £100 million towards the initiative in 2015. The plan was to fund one new project every year for five years, with each receiving £20 million over a five-year cycle. Thanks to a partnership with the Dutch Cancer Society and an anonymous donor, four projects have been given the go-ahead this year.

“Cancer Research UK set up the Grand Challenge awards to bring a renewed focus and energy to the fight against cancer,” said Sir Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive. “We want to shine a light on the toughest questions that stand in the way of progress.”

You can read more about the Grand Challenge and the winning projects on Cancer Research UK’s website.

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