More MS news articles for Mar 2002

Virtual reality puts scientists inside the cell - 3-D ‘cave’ re-creates microscopic structures for medical research

Feb. 28, 2002
CALGARY, Alberta

Canadian scientists have opened a powerful computing lab they said will help speed up research into diseases like cancer and diabetes by allowing researchers to view three-dimensional models of cells in a room similar to the holodeck in the “Star Trek” television series.

THE $3.7 MILLION University of Calgary facility is a step ahead of the handful of other virtual reality labs used in such research because users for the first time can build models on their own computers, rather than be tied up for days or weeks programming at the site, officials said.

The key is the use of Java 3D programming language, which allows scientists anywhere in the world to develop applications for the lab with the Java computer language, which is widely used in programs for the World Wide Web.

Scientists, wearing 3-D glasses in the 10-by-10-foot (3-by-3-meter) “cave,” get a 270-degree, larger-than-life projection of the smallest parts of our biological makeup, to the point of being able to stand inside a strand of DNA.

The result is so realistic one cannot resist reaching out to try to touch the image. But unlike the fictional holodeck on the Starship Enterprise, it takes much more work to create the 3-D environment than simply telling the computer what to display.

“This is the first prototype of a completely new system that allows you to immerse yourself in virtual-reality 3-D, so you can basically surround yourself with whatever you’d like to simulate, from a landscape to a human body to a single cell,” said Christoph Sensen, a biochemistry and molecular biology professor at the University of Calgary who headed the project.

“Parts of this technology exist elsewhere, but ours is unique in that you can program it in Java 3D, so we can basically unlink the programming and development from the final product.”

The computer system was developed in conjunction with Sun Microsystems and is located at Calgary’s Foothills Hospital.

Similar technology is already used at other facilities studying the emerging field of bioinformatics, which involves mapping information used in life sciences research, such as the human genome sequence — the blueprint for life.

The facility will be available for use by pharmaceutical firms, meteorologists and even oil companies, which have already used the technology to get 3-D pictures of geological formations before drilling expensive wells, Sensen said.

However, the focus will be medical research, he said.

“What we’re planning to do mainly is deal with complex genetic diseases in which you have to have huge data sets that need to be organized in order to understand how the disease works,” Sensen said. “Examples for these are diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cancer.”

The modeling should also mean less time spent on physical experiments, because much of the groundwork will be done digitally.

© 2002 Reuters Limited