Virtual Reality Headsets Could Show Up at Your Doctor’s Office

Virtual reality probably brings to mind dreams of video games of the future. But virtual technology has world-changing potential. It can be applied to education, business, and almost any other field you can think of. With virtual technology, it’s now possible to dive deep into previously invisible worlds. 

virtual 1

Doctors and medical researchers have been quick to spot the promise of virtual reality for healthcare. Many diseases occur deep inside the body, on a scale that’s far smaller than what the human eye can detect. Cancer cells, for instance, are no larger than the width of a human hair. The rogue proteins that cause cancer in the first place are 1,000 times smaller – so tiny that they can’t even be seen with a standard microscope. 

Researchers have developed advanced microscopes that allow them to look in on cells and proteins. But there’s a big problem with many of these tools: they’re two dimensional (2-D). That makes it difficult to use them to treat cancer and similar diseases. 

Imagine trying to perform an operation to cut out a tumor with just a flat, 2-D picture to help guide you. It would be impossible to know how deep the cancer cells extend or if there are cells breaking off from the main tumor. There’s also no way to see what went wrong with the proteins inside the cancer cells.

reality

3-D imaging has greatly improved doctors’ ability to operate on tumors and to understand what’s happening inside cancer cells. To create a 3-D image, researchers take hundreds of 2-D images, moving the camera deeper into the tumor one nanometer at a time. All of those pictures are then stacked on top of one another by a computer. The result is a virtual model that can be rotated and explored on a computer screen. 

Still, making sense of a 3-D model on a 2-D computer screen isn’t easy. Researchers can’t get a sense of the space between cells or how cells are positioned around one another inside the body. It’s also difficult to tell whether a particular bend in a protein is responsible for causing disease without looking at it from the inside.

3

Virtual reality allows researchers to fully immerse themselves inside these 3-D models. Individual cancer cells can be blown up to several times the size of a scientist’s virtual body, while they walk around it. Inside a tumor, researchers can look for clues about how cancer cells communicate and stick to one another. Or, they can fly through the center of a cancerous protein and see how a specific bend prevents the protein from doing its job.

Scientists are hopeful that virtual reality will offer a big step forward in the fight against cancer. If doctors can pinpoint why a protein isn’t functioning, they can potentially find a drug that prevents the problem in the first place. Researchers can also use virtual reality to better understand why some cancer cells break away from the main tumor and spread throughout the body.

4

Cancer researchers are among the first users of virtual reality technology in medicine. But healthcare experts are hopeful that virtual reality headsets will soon make their way into doctors’ offices and hospitals. Right now, the only holdup is that programs have yet to be created to help doctors look at the data they need in virtual reality. 

But that’s likely to change quickly. Virtual reality headsets are already cheap compared to other medical equipment. Plus, a rising focus on personalized medicine is expected to create demand for new ways of looking at patients’ medical data and individual cells. 

So, it may not be long before your doctor greets you not just with a stethoscope around their neck, but a virtual reality headset on their forehead.

Glossary

Nanometer One billionth of a meter. Your fingernail grows at about one nanometer per second. 

Personalized medicine A new field of medicine in which treatment is customized to a single person’s body and genetic makeup. 

Proteins Molecules that perform many of the essential functions inside cells, like repairing tissue and carrying oxygen. 

Tumor A mass of tissue or cluster of abnormal cells.

Copyright @smorescience. All rights reserved. Do not copy, cite, publish, or distribute this content without permission.


Join 20,000+ parents and educators
To get the FREE science digest in your inbox!

Author

  • Michael Graw, Ph.D.

    Michael Graw is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Bellingham, Washington. He holds a PhD in oceanography from Oregon State University. Michael is excited about making scientific research easier to understand and sharing the stories behind the science. When not writing, you can find him climbing, skiing, and trail running. Writing for Smore gives Michael an opportunity to share the most exciting new developments in science today with tomorrow's scientists.