Seeing inside cells with VR

Virtual reality can give us a new perspective on biology
20 October 2020

Interview with 

Steven Lee, University of Cambridge


A gamer wearing a virtual reality headset.


It sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie: to be able to shrink down and take a peek inside the cells in our body, and watch the molecular machinery at work, but now, with the help of some clever science, and virtual reality, the science fiction is becoming science fact. Adam Murphy heard more about it from Cambridge University chemist Steven Lee...

Steven - So we've been working on developing some software that allows us to visualise a very special kind of microscopy data. Our research is based on developing new optical methods to address biological problems. So simply put, we use lasers to build new kinds of microscopes. And the technique that we use is called super resolution imaging, which was awarded the Nobel prize back in 2014. And a few years ago, we were at a public engagement event at the Science Museum trying to tell people how excited we were about super resolution imaging. And we encountered a company called Lume VR who build kind of immersive experiences. And we started talking to them. They said, "this is fantastic science, but it looks ugly and it's difficult to interact with". And we said, "we completely agree. Please help us". And a few years later, we've managed to get to this point now. We've created this new software that allows us to explore some of our microscopy data in a virtual reality environment in a much more intuitive way.

Adam - So then I suppose the key question is, when you've got that headset on and you're in the programme, what does it actually look like? What do you see?

Steven - Yeah, it's magical actually! Super resolution imaging as I said, is this technology where images are built up over a tiny little point. So actually the environment is - if you can imagine - kind of dark, almost like a night sky and millions of points are kind of being illuminated like twinkling stars. So you kind of see this environment in the dark and it's kind of inspired us. The software's called vLume because if you've ever had a watch and you can see the glowing hands in the dark, it's exactly the same kind of idea. It's really a kind of interesting experience that allows you to explore your data.

Adam - And then what did the cells look like when you're in them? What do you see?

Steven - One of the issues you have with a lot of biological problems is that if you imagine just magnifying and magnifying and magnifying, looking through a microscope that perhaps people, you know, did at school or something, there's a fundamental kind of physical limit. And that limit is limited not by how well you build your microscope. It's limited by the physics of light itself. And so that scale unfortunately is a little bit larger than the vast majority of biological things that are occurring in our body. So up until this discovery, this new technology, and it was actually very difficult to be able to interact with things. Essentially you were trying to visualise things that were just too blurry. It's like if the glasses prescription wasn't high enough. And this virtual reality technology allows us to be able to not only see this data, but also interact with it to create new hypotheses and reject false ones.

Adam - How does it help you do that? How can just, how does this new perspective mean you can see new things and reject certain things?

Steven - Yeah, so first of all, it's quite powerful to do an example. We had a PhD student in my lab. We managed to purify an immune cell from her own blood. Then we imaged that cell and then she got the opportunity to kind of go inside her own immune cell in virtual reality. It's quite a powerful experience. But actually what we're kind of interested in looking at is these complicated, what we call membrane topology. So the shape that these immune cells form actually affects how they function, how you, how your body deals with new infections. And the ability to be able to see this and interact with it and be able to perform quantitative analyses on some of these data is actually allowing us to be able to understand these molecular origins of adaptive immunity and how your body physically deals with new infections.


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