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Virtual Reality and Expansion Microscopy Highlight New Methods for Disease Prevention and Treatment

A research team comprising of members from the Benaroya Research Institute and the Carnegie Mellon University is working on combining virtual reality (VR) technology and nanoscale imaging process to help researchers intervene in their biological evidence.

Through combining a technique known as expansion microscopy with VR, scientists can now extend, inspect and perform cellular structure analysis, in ways better than conventional light microscopy.

The technologies development is being facilitated via a two-step process through $200,000 funding received from Grand Challenges, a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation initiative. It can help researchers gain a better understanding of autoimmune and infectious-type diseases, and improve their capabilities of developing diagnostics, treatment procedures and avoidance measures.

Yongxin (Leon) Zhao, a biological sciences assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Mellon College of Science, has been contributing to the development of the expansion microscopy procedure for physical biopsy magnification. This latest development will let researchers observe the more minute details of biological specimens through conventional microscopes.

Zhao expands the size of biopsy samples by using chemical methods to transform them into water-soluble hydrogels. Following that, he performs a treatment to loosen tissues, thus enabling them to expand to more than 100 times their original volume. The molecules and tissues in the sample are then imaged, labelled and assembled into a complex set of data. The resultant data can then be used to gain an understanding of the interactions between cells and their structures.

One limitation of the technology is that it can extract a couple more measures of data than what can be interpreted by currently existing techniques. The grant provided by the Gates Foundation is helping to bypass the issue by coupling expansion microscopy technology with the VR-based technique from Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason (BRI).

Brendan Gallagher, a biological sciences graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, uses virtual reality to examine 3D biological data gathered using expansion microscopy. Credit: Carnegie Mellon University

The virtual reality technology instance, which has been developed for this very purpose, will enable researchers to view and influence the fundamentally two-dimensional microscopy imagery in a three-dimensional setting. Researchers are able to get a 360-degree view of tissue and protein arrangements, and the interactions between them.

Caroline Stefani, a senior postdoctoral research associate at BRI, spoke in greater detail about the development. She stated that the BRI team is preparing the specimens of autoimmune and infectious diseases. According to her, the samples will be sent over to Carnegie Mellon where researchers will expand the samples and send back images to BRI for virtual reality-based observation.

The VR development is a signifier of how scientists can manage complex information in the future. The immersive experience gives researchers feel that they are within the data, and they have the flexibility of observing from different angles. – Yongxin (Leon) Zhao

Tom Skillman, the erstwhile director of research technology at BRI, was responsible for the development of this VR technology. He has since gone on to find a VR firm called Immersive Science.

Skillman revealed that his role in the grant was to create a software tool to help scientists study diseases through the ‘immersive science’ technique. He intends to share the tool, known as ExMicroVR, to researchers through open platforms.


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