VR tool helps scientists study cells of interest

Friday, 03 December, 2021

VR tool helps scientists study cells of interest

Science has the technology to measure the activity of every gene within a single individual cell, and just one experiment can generate thousands of cells worth of data. Researchers at Lund University have now revolutionised the way this data is analysed — by using 3D video gaming technology.

Advanced DNA and RNA sequencing techniques have opened up the possibility of studying individual cells in tissue in a more comprehensive way than was previously possible, resulting in large amounts of data to wade through. As explained by Lund researcher Shamit Soneji, “When you want to distinguish cancer cells from normal cells, for example, you need to examine thousands of cells to get a proper understanding, which translates into enormous amounts of numerical data.”

To make this data comprehensible, each cell is mathematically positioned in three-dimensional space to form a ‘roadmap’ of the cells and how they relate to each other. However, these maps can be difficult to navigate using a regular desktop computer. With this in mind, Lund researchers developed the software ‘CellexalVR’: a virtual reality environment that enables researchers to use intuitive tools to explore all their data in one place.

Using a VR headset, the user has a complete universe of cell populations in front of them and can better determine how cells relate to one another. 3D maps of cells that have been calculated from gene activity and other information captured from individual cells can be displayed, and the researcher can clearly see which genes are active when certain cell types are formed. Using two hand controllers, they can select cells of interest for further analysis with simple hand gestures as if they were physical objects.

Since space is not an issue, it is possible to have several cellular maps in the same ‘room’ and compare them side by side; something that is difficult on a traditional computer screen. Researchers can also meet in this VR world to analyse data together, despite being in different places geographically.

“To be able to walk around your own data and manipulate it intuitively and efficiently gives it a whole new understanding,” said Lund researcher Mattias Wallergård. “I would actually go so far as to say that one thinks differently in VR, thanks to the technique’s ability to involve your body in the analysis process.”

Soneji claimed that this type of analysis is open to everyone — even those who aren’t familiar with computer programming — due to its enormous potential for scientists who need to access and process big data in a more interactive and collaborative way. The software has thus been made available to download for free at www.cellexalvr.med.lu.se/, while the team’s study has been published in the journal iScience.

Image credit: Shamit Soneji.

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