• VR could change the way we treat cancer by helping design better chemotherapy drugs. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Forget holding out for jet-packs or hover boards – the future is virtual reality and medicine. From transforming brain surgery to improving cancer drugs and helping train doctors in anatomy, amazing things are happening when medicine and VR combine.
Shannon McKeogh

7 Nov 2016 - 2:19 PM  UPDATED 11 Nov 2016 - 8:14 AM

Have you heard of immersive 3D brain surgery? It’s a thing. A very real thing that Dr Michelle Moscova, Senior Lecturer at the School of Medical Sciences at the University of New South Wales, tells SBS is one of most exciting advances in VR technology.

“[The experience] is like immersive 3D games - using a hands-free mask, such as Oculus Rift - that allows [surgeons] to turn their head and look around the structures within the patient’s body,” Dr. Moscova explains.

Developed in the US by two Israeli Airforce pilots and flight simulator experts, surgical theatre is the newest commercial technology to personalise surgery planning. It combines flight simulator technology with medical imaging scans.

“Using VR technology, the actual scans of the patient can be made into 3D images and the surgeon can ‘fly through’ the patient’s brain and see the tumour and the structures close to it, just like a pilot would fly through an air route in a simulator,” tells Dr. Moscova.

“Not everyone has access to medical centres and body parts. This tool makes anatomy available to everyone.”

A surgeon can then personalise the surgery based on the tumour size and create a step-by-step operation plan to screen in the operating theatre with the use of VR.

“This, in theory, allows the surgeon to remove as much of the tumour as possible, preserving the healthy brain tissue and avoiding damage to vital structures that may be next to the tumour,” Dr Moscova says.

Learning anatomy with VR

With 4,000 body structures, users can strap on a VR and zoom around and explore bones, muscles, ligaments, nerves and organs in brilliant detail. 3D Organon VR Anatomy is the most advanced VR anatomy software to date, and will be available on app stores later in the year.

SBS brings you the world through VR

The software was created by Dr Athanasios Raikos, founder of Medis Media and Assistant Professor of Anatomy at Bond University. He says VR is not just hype:

 “Virtual reality offers an immersive experience, which is quite important for learning anatomy,” Dr. Raikos says.

The technology was created to educate medical and allied health students, professionals and secondary students. The immersion is fun, accessible and helps concentration.

“There is a lot of detail to learn; [in anatomy] students need to learn over 2,500 anatomical terms – it can be like learning a new language,” Dr. Raikos says.

“Putting on a VR headset is one way to help students concentrate better.”

The software also presents an alternative to messy and smelly dissections.

“Not everyone has access to medical centres and body parts. This tool makes anatomy available to everyone.”

Designing more effective chemotherapy drugs

VR could change the way we treat cancer. University of New South Wales’ 3D Visualisation Aesthetics Lab is in the early development of exploring how VR can help design more effective chemotherapy drugs.

According to Moscova, the design is all about being selective.

“The challenge in using chemotherapy drugs is that they are highly toxic and also kill normal cells, as well as produce serious side effects like kidney damage. Ideally, we want to deliver a high dose of drug specifically to the cancer cells, killing them selectively and sparing other tissues.”

These drugs require a careful design through engineering the right size and shape nanoparticles to target the cancer cell. 

This is where VR could save the day.

“A VR simulation of a drug-containing nanoparticle and the surface of the targeted cancer cells allows the researcher to better understand and assess the interactions between them,” Dr. Moscova explains.

If there are problems, modifications can be made to the nanoparticle design before moving to the next stage of testing, potentially making drug development faster and cheaper.”

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