Virtual cells provide new cancer insights
Academics from the University of Newcastle and the Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI*) have developed the world’s first virtual platform to host 3D copies of human cancer tissues, revolutionising the way researchers access critical information needed to advance cancer treatment.
The Virtual Biobank will digitise and help speed up the process of accessing vital tissue samples donated by patients, which up until now could only be requested through physical biobanks.
With cancer a leading cause of death in Australia, chief investigators Dr Jamie Flynn, Dr Antony Martin and Dr William Palmer developed The Virtual Biobank as an open resource to accelerate and enhance medical research activities.
“It currently takes many months before researchers are able to obtain tissue samples from a physical biobank and carry out investigations with it. Once a researcher has performed their study, that sample typically cannot be reused.
“Each digital cancer sample in The Virtual Biobank is made up of high resolution microscopy images in both 2D and 3D, plus important clinical and molecular information that provides the foundation for virtual research into cancer.
“We’ve taken a tiny sample from tumor biopsies stored at the Hunter Cancer Biobank** and converted them into a virtual copy, enabling anyone around the world with an internet connection to carry out research from their computers or easily request access to the physical sample they need.
“This process ensures the physical sample remains intact, but a 3D, digital copy with clinical and experimental information is kept online for future use. This is particularly critical for rare cancers, which are hard to study due to a limited number of samples,” Dr Flynn explained.
Research team behind the Virtual Biobank L-R: Dr William Palmer, Dr Jamie Flynn and Dr Antony Martin.
Online anatomical library
Working with the University of Newcastle’s Hunter Cancer Biobank based at HMRI, Dr Flynn and his colleagues have uploaded the first 20 breast cancer samples to The Virtual Biobank with accompanying clinical descriptions.
The addition of 3D images was made possible by the innovative 3D Tissue Clearing and Lightsheet Microscope Facility (established by the same team in 2016) based at HMRI, which specialises in making tissue samples ‘see through’ for cutting edge 3D microscopy.
Hunter Cancer Biobank Scientific Advisor, Dr Rick Thorne, said The Virtual Biobank is key to unlocking the third dimension of cancer tissues.
“Putting these samples in their true context for the first time will help researchers with many different problems, including how to get treatments to all of the cancer cells in tumors.
“The project has kicked off with breast cancer, but the processes used by the team are applicable to any cancer tissue. It is remarkable this will happen online and we look forward to future expansions of the dataset.”