Trinity Fellow, Professor Greg Hannon, will create the world’s first virtual reality map of cancer tumours to reveal their cellular and molecular make up, in order to improve diagnosis and treatment.
His groundbreaking project is one of the first Cancer Research UK Grand Challenge Awards, which aim to overcome the biggest obstacles facing cancer researchers in a global £100 million effort to beat cancer. Established in 2015, Cancer Research UK’s Grand Challenge intended to award £20 million for one new team every five years – the biggest awards ever funded by the charity. But the exceptional quality of research proposals meant four projects were deemed too important not to fund.
Professor Hannon’s virtual reality tumour map was one of those. To build the 3D breast cancer tumour will be an ‘enormous challenge’ he said, but would lead to significant advances in the understanding – and thus diagnosis, treatment and management – of cancer.
‘Cells communicate with each other in ways that we really don’t yet capture with any technology that we have developed so far. But with our project, we hope to change that,’ he said.
Scientists will be able to ‘walk into’ the 3D tumour using virtual reality and then examine its workings in unprecedented detail. Professor Hannon explained this ‘Superman mode’:
It literally lets you fly inside a tumour, point at every cell, know exactly what kind of cell it is, know what it’s doing, who it is talking to, and what it is saying to them. By doing this, we could learn more about tumours and begin to answer questions that have eluded cancer scientists for many years.
Professor Hannon will lead a multidisciplinary, international team – with researchers from the US, UK, Switzerland, Canada and Ireland – based at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, which acts as a bridge between research at the University and Addenbrooke’s Hospital.
Team members include Trinity Fellow and DNA specialist, Professor Sir Shankar Balasubramanian, Cambridge astronomer, Professor Nicholas Walton, virtual reality designer and programmer, Dr Owen Harris, molecular biologist, Dr Dario Bressan, cancer research Professors, Carlos Caldas and Samuel Aparicio, and patient advocates, Lynn Dundas and Elaine Chapman.
This project will develop technology that Prof Hannon predicts will become standard for all sorts of diseases.
It is at the very cutting edge of how people will in the future understand not only cancer but also organismal development and all sorts of biological problems. This will bring into Cambridge the seed that will be the future of biology.
Cutting edge it maybe, but Professor Hannon says he conceived the idea when using old-fashioned technology – on a bicycle – and refined the project with the colleagues in the very traditional surroundings of Trinity’s Old Combination Room.