Virtual Reality (VR) should help researchers and physicians to get a better understanding of rare diseases. Julia Pazmandi, PhD student in the research group of Kaan Boztug at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Rare and Undiagnosed Diseases (LBI-RUD) and CeMM Research Center for Molecular Medicine of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, presented her research project in the "Falling Walls Lab" finals in Berlin, after winning the Austrian preliminary round.
A fast and precise diagnosis is of high importance for people with a rare disease. Often, patients have to wait for many years until physicians know the cause of their disease and can start with a targeted therapy. This is precisely where the research project of molecular biologist Julia Pazmandi begins. She uses a VR-platform (CeMM's VR Holodeck), which has been developed in the research group of Jörg Menche at CeMM, in order to visualize scientific and genetic data in a virtual network. Researchers and physicians have the opportunity to explore these biomedical data and to enter these moleular networks of rare diseases.
But how does this virtual reality look like and how does it work? "When you put on the VR-headset, you are surrounded by thousands of glowing dots, that all represent proteins of a human cell", explains Julia Pazmandi. With two specific joysticks, she navigates through this virtual world and can have a detailed look into a single protein of interest. In these 3D-surroundings, it is possible for her to recognize at a glance how this specific protein is linked to other proteins and what function it has in the human body. "If we now upload patient data from blood samples and genetic tests to this network, we can see from color coding where anomalies occur in a protein and can determine with what probability certain genetic changes (mutations) contribute to a rare disease", says Pazmandi. A promising application field is, among others, cancer research as genetic mutations are the cause of some cancer diseases.
In the future, this VR-world should help physicians to recognize rare diseases faster and thereby leading to a directed and more efficient targeted therapy approach. Until this system can be used in the daily routine of the clinics, further development and additional tests are needed, but the project is already in a promising state for future applications.
Currently, Julia Pazmandi is a PhD student at CeMM (Research Center for Molecular Medicine) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and at the LBI-RUD in the group of Kaan Boztug. The presented project is a collaboration with the group of Jörg Menche at CeMM.
Falling Walls Lab
The first Falling Walls Lab took place in Berlin in 2011 and these events are now being held in over 50 countries worldwide. The final with approx. 100 winners from the international Labs, takes place on November 8 in Berlin each year. The goal of the Falling Walls Lab is to promote scientific and entrepreneurial innovations, and to foster the exchange between excellent researchers and experts from different fields.