Virtual reality allows scientists to walk inside cancer cells. Imagine being able to walk around inside a virtual replica of your own cells.

In the future, patients could have ‘virtual’ copies of themselves. That is becoming a reality, thanks to groundbreaking technology developed at the University of New South Wales.

Associate Professor John McGhee runs the 3D Visualisation Aesthetics Lab — one of the sites where the technology is being developed.

“We take data from a patient’s PET scan to visualise the data,” he said.

Using 3D gaming technology, they turn the data into an interactive virtual reality landscape.

“No longer do you look at something on a screen, you look at something in a completely immersive way with a headset, so it’s as if you were there inside the cell walking around,” he said.

“It will help the scientific discovery process, as we can see how cells behave in a way we never have before.”

And in the future, cancer patients could see a virtual version of themselves, and track where drug treatments are ending up in their bodies.


Professor Maria Kavallaris from the Children’s Cancer Institute is part of the project.

“You can imagine that you might go to the doctor and be taken through a journey in your body, being able to visualise where the disease is located and what the potential treatment options are,” she said.

“It will empower patients to make their treatment decisions.”

Associate Professor McGhee said patients could then show their family and friends what’s happening to them.

“I think this is a really exciting time,” he said.

‘It’s like a virtual field trip’

The technology allows scientists to collaborate with each other in a completely new way.

Scientists can work with overseas colleagues on medical breakthroughs, exploring and commenting on the same virtual landscape at the same time.

“This approach is almost like a virtual field trip,” Associate Professor McGhee said.

Scientists and researchers say the immersive approach is like being on a ‘virtual field trip’ (Credit: Assoc Prof John McGhee UNSW, John Bailey UNSW, Prof Rob Parton University of Queensland, Dr Angus Johnston Monash University)

Professor Kavallaris said she was amazed when she tried virtual reality.

“The first time I put on the goggles, I was totally blown away. It was almost like science fiction-type experience,” she said.

The research is a collaboration with the ARC Centre of Excellence in Convergent Bio-Nano Science and Technology.

Experts say it has important applications for training the scientists of the future.

The technology is already being trialled on Monash University Pharmaceutical Science students learning about cancer, to see if it improves their understanding.

“We’ve now got data that shows by putting a headset on and walking in virtual reality, we have seen a significant improvement in their exam results, compared to others who were using traditional media,” Associate Professor McGhee said.


A digitally created grey silhouette of a human stands in front of a computer generated cell

PHOTO Using 3D technology, the data is turned into an interactive virtual reality landscape.