I feel like I’ve landed on an alien planet. I’m walking across the surface of a breast cancer cell as drug nanoparticles whizz past my head like spaceships. One of the particles suddenly crashes in front of me, and I teeter on the edge of an abyss as it is sucked through the surface. It feels real – and in a sense, it is.

The cell I am exploring in virtual reality is not a conceptual model. John McGhee of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, and his colleagues have used high-resolution electron-microscope data to reconstruct a real-life cancer cell from a human breast in three-dimensional CGI.

I take a tour of the cell’s interior, tiptoeing around the nucleus, mitochondria and endosomes while they gently bob in the liquid cytosol.

McGhee’s idea is that chemists and cell biologists can put on a virtual-reality headset and get a better feel for the minuscule environments they are researching and engineering. For instance, they can watch virtual simulations of the different ways in which nanoparticle drugs are gobbled up by cancer cells, potentially aiding the drug-design process.

The technology succeeds in drawing me in. When it’s time to zoom back out to a human scale, I’m surprised to realise that full-size Alice has been padding around a 3-by-3-metre patch of carpet for the last 5 minutes.


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