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Individual Cells Explored with Virtual Reality

vLume image

Image from a vLume virtual reality depiction of a neuron, showing associated analytics (Alexandre Kitching, Lume VR)

13 Oct. 2020. A new software package uses virtual reality to allow biologists and medical researchers to visualize and explore inside individual cells in three dimensions. The software known as vLume is a product of Lume VR Ltd., a two year-old company in Oxford, U.K. and described by researchers from University of Cambridge in yesterday’s issue of the journal Nature Methods (paid subscription required).

vLume software uses images and associated data sets created by super-high resolution microscopes that make it possible to view nanoscale images of individual cells, as well as witness cellular processes in real time. But up to now those images and processes were displayed in two, not three, dimensions, even on jumbo flat-screen monitors..

“Biology occurs in 3-D, but up until now it has been difficult to interact with the data on a 2-D computer screen in an intuitive and immersive way,” says Cambridge biophysical chemistry professor and the paper’s senior author Steven Lee in a university statement. “It wasn’t until we started seeing our data in virtual reality that everything clicked into place.”

The vLume software loads multiple super-resolution images and data sets, often with millions of data points, and applies algorithms to find underlying patterns at higher speeds than other packages, according to the company. Those patterns are then translated into still images and video. The software allows for segmenting the data, applying custom analyses, and exporting the results. Those results, taking researchers inside individual cells, are imaged on 3-D virtual-reality headsets.

In addition, vLume enables researchers to isolate parts of the image, to separately analyze the underlying data. Researchers can then interact with those data, including running their own scripts, within the field of view, for testing hypotheses in real time.

“Data generated from super-resolution microscopy is extremely complex,” notes Lume VR co-founder and CEO Alexandre Kitching. “For scientists, running analysis on this data can be very time-consuming. With vLume, we have managed to vastly reduce that wait time allowing for more rapid testing and analysis.”

Lee’s lab studies techniques for better visualizing complex biological processes, including 3-D imaging. Lee and colleagues collaborated with Lume VR when the company’s original focus was on spatial computing and data analysis. The collaboration helped the company upgrade the product into virtual reality software with advanced analytics.

The lab uses vLume with biological data sets such as neurons and immune cells. Doctoral candidate and co-author Anoushka Handa says she used the software to visualize one of her immune cells from a blood sample, and stand inside the cell in virtual reality. “It’s incredible,” says Handa. “It gives you an entirely different perspective on your work.”

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