MIT team using VR in fight vs. cancer

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

By: Lindsay Kalter

Source: Cancer Research UK


Science fiction writers have long toyed with the concept of venturing through the human body to fight ailments from within. Now local researchers are working to make that a reality.

New efforts are underway to develop technologies that will allow doctors to step inside tumors using virtual reality, giving them a detailed view of the cells and molecules to allow for more targeted treatments.

“There are a lot of people looking at the genetic makeup of tumors, but we’re trying to go beyond that,” said Ed Boyden, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “What we want to know is what a tumor’s weaknesses are, and what makes it thrive.”

Boyden’s team is one of four recipients of the Cancer Research UK Grand Challenge Award, receiving roughly $24 million to develop these technologies for clinical use.

The process of creating a virtual tumor large enough to explore would have two main components, Boyden said.

First, doctors would take a biopsy and embed the tissue in sodium polyacrylate, which is almost identical to the chemical used in diapers that cause them to absorb and expand.

Adding water would cause the tissue to grow 100 times larger, allowing detailed images to be taken under a microscope.

The tumor would then be sliced into thin pieces and the genetic material analyzed before rebuilding it in detailed virtual form.

“We can target what we need to destroy the cancer,” Boyden said. “The second thing is that we’d have better diagnostics.”

Doctors would don the same goggles used when playing virtual reality video games, said Greg Hannon of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, who is the project leader.

“Anyone could use this in their homes, which is what we envision with doctor-patient interactions and educational applications,” Hannon said.

Hannon said scientists can use the information in cancer genomics to determine which patients will fall into high- or low-risk categories by pinpointing the specific subtype of cancer.

The research has been ongoing for about five years, and team members say they are “very close” to putting the finishing touches on their new technology.

About two out of five adults in the United States will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives.

Boyden, who is a professor of biological engineering and brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, said it will take efforts from various disciplines to really move the needle in cancer research.

“The most important thing is simply to have an outsider’s perspective,” Boyden said. “That’s really where radical ideas come from.”

Creating a virtual reality tumor

1 A detailed reference picture of a tumor is taken.

2 Wafer thin slices are cut from the tumor.

3 The slices are deeply analyzed, right down to their genetic information.

4 The information is processed and the tumor is rebuilt in virtual reality.

5 Multiple users wearing 3-D virtual reality headsets can step into the tumor, view and analyze it simultaneously.