Cancer innovation using virtual reality unlocks a whole new world in fight against COVID-19

Sony Foundation funded cancer research platform, Aquaria, provides an unprecedented insight into coronavirus mutations

Date: 19 October 2021

After a long career studying the 3D structure of proteins, Professor Seán O'Donoghue from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research describes the first time he used a Virtual Reality (VR) headset to virtually ‘hold’ a protein model with cancer mutations as “a game-changing moment that unlocked a whole new world.”

The experience was made possible because of an innovative digital platform with VR compatible software called Aquaria that was created by a team of researchers and developers from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, CSIRO’s Data61, and Start Beyond, led by O'Donoghue.

The Aquaria platform with extended reality software is free and easy to access enabling researchers worldwide to experience this game-changing moment and see their data in ways that previously could only be accessed in a 2D flat screen format. With more realistic and immersive 3D visualisation, researchers can get closer than ever before to understanding mutations.

The initial research project, that bought VR capabilities to Aquaria, was funded by Sony Foundation Australia and Tour de Cure as part of an effort to drive more investment in youth cancer research and encourage adoption of virtual reality technology in medical science.

Significant as the innovation was, the team did not foresee how it would become a tool in the fight against a global pandemic.



Aquaria’s capability is now being recognised for its ability to be used far beyond the world of cancer disease with a recent study by Professor O'Donoghue featured in the journal Molecular Systems Biology. The paper documents using Aquaria as a tool in the most comprehensive analysis of the 3D structure of coronavirus proteins to date, revealing new insight on how the virus operates within our cells.

By combining all available data on the 3D shapes of the viral proteins, O'Donoghue and a team of researchers have revealed new clues on how coronavirus evades human immune detection and replicates.

“Our resource contains a level of detail of SARS-CoV-2’s structure that is not available anywhere else. This has given us an unprecedented insight into the virus’s activity,” says Professor O'Donoghue.

“Our analysis has highlighted key mechanisms used by the coronavirus; these mechanisms, in turn, may guide the development of new therapies and vaccines.”

The researchers compiled more than 2,000 different structures involving the coronavirus’s 27 proteins. The analysis identified viral proteins that ‘mimic’ and ‘hijack’ human proteins – tactics that allow the virus to bypass cell defences and replicate. These structural models can be freely accessed from the COVID section on the Aquaria website.

Click here to visit the COVID section on the Aquaria website.

“The longer the virus circulates, the more chances it has to mutate and form new variants such as the Delta strain,” says Professor O'Donoghue. “Our resource will help researchers understand how new strains of the virus differ from each other – a piece of the puzzle that we hope will help in dealing with new variants as they emerge.”

Sophie Ryan, CEO Sony Foundation said, “It’s incredible to think this innovation emerged from asking cancer researchers to collaborate with technology engineers and software developers in the fight against cancer. We hope researchers around the world embrace the potential of the free Aquaria site to continue in important discoveries, not just for cancer, but for COVID, Parkinson’s and so many other diseases.”

VR can help researchers use complex, 3D models of proteins to understand the molecular mechanisms underlying a specific cancer, COVID, or many other diseases. It can also help in communicating new insights to peers, clinicians, and patients.

However, previous VR systems with these capabilities were too time-consuming to be used by most researchers. Aquaria is designed to be the first system that makes VR easily accessible to researchers, but with capabilities powerful enough to show essentially any mutation on any protein. Aquaria is free and easy to access via a webpage which integrates with multiple VR devices.

VR Developer, Start Beyond, collaborated with the research team to design and build a system that enables these protein models to be seamlessly explored in immersive VR. This delivers a powerful and immersive VR experience with potential to transform how scientists see and think about their data.

For more information on Professor Seán O'Donoghue’s 3D analysis of SARS-CoV-2 in Molecular Systems Biology –CLICK HERE

Stay in touch with all the latest news and updates – subscribe to our newsletter