A radical project: video game design meets cancer research

What does a videogame designer have to do with cancer research? Well, until recently, our answer to that question may have been quite different.

But since 2017, when Professor Greg Hannon and his team of international researchers were awarded £20m to develop a new way for scientists to study tumours, the worlds of cancer research and virtual reality (VR) have collided. The result is unlike anything that has ever been seen in either field. Incredibly, the same techniques that make video games so popular are now advancing our understanding of cancer.

Make it real

This is thanks to Cancer Grand Challenges, a funding initiative co-founded by Cancer Research UK and the US National Cancer Institute. It brings together diverse international teams of world-class researchers to answer some of the most complex questions in human health.

For the tumour mapping challenge, the IMAXT team has combined existing VR techniques with entirely new approaches to build a system for creating 3D representations of individual tumours.

These are exact models of unprecedented size and detail, and can be viewed, explored and studied from the inside using VR. Moreover, the team has also created a unique VR cancer lab called Project Theia, where researchers can examine these models and do their research together, no matter where in the world they actually are.

The new perspective IMAXT’s VR software offers could give doctors and scientists the understanding they need to develop new ways to diagnose and treat cancer, stopping it from spreading and coming back.

And now, on 1st December 2022, after seeing exceptional responses in trials earlier this year, the IMAXT team has released its software to the wider academic (non-commercial) cancer research community.

To mark the occasion, we spoke to Owen Harris, the lead video game designer for IMAXT, about working alongside scientists on such an innovative project.

An unusual request

This story starts when Harris was a child. “I was playing video games and, like many kids at the time, I was enamoured by the medium,” he explains. “And one day I realised they were made by people like me – they weren’t just these magical artefacts.” From there, Harris’ experience gets a lot less typical.

He went on to study video game design at college and, after a few years in the industry, got involved with a science project of a different ilk. “I had been working on an intervention for anxiety and depression, studying the effects of soothing music and visuals as well as slow breathing exercises,” he explains. “So I have some experience working with scientists. And I think that is one of the ways that Greg Hannon found me.”

But even Harris was surprised when he first heard about IMAXT.

“An email arrived in my inbox from Greg,” he recalls. “And I thought it was a scam because it sounded so radical and strange.” Still, it was too interesting to ignore. Harris and Hannon got on a phone call, and the rest is history.

“Greg explained that he wanted to visualise breast cancer and use virtual reality to generate new treatments for it. At the time, my aunt, who I was very close with and was one of the most important people in my life, had her breast cancer come back. So I was very motivated to get involved.”