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Find a way of mapping tumours at the molecular and cellular level 

Founders' logos
Professor Greg Hannon, Principal Investigator, IMAXT

Professor Greg Hannon, Team Lead

Senior Group Leader, CRUK Cambridge Institute





UK, Switzerland, USA, Canada and Republic of Ireland


Cancer Research UK - £20m


Biology, mathematics, bioinformatics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, neuroscience

The world's first virtual reality map of cancer

By developing an entirely new way to study cancer, IMAXT could revolutionise the diagnosis and treatment of people with the disease.   

A new perspective

Funded by:

CRUK logo

Tumour biopsies play a crucial role in a patient’s cancer journey, providing vital information on faulty genes to guide their diagnosis and support decisions around treatment.   

But to fully understand cancer, we need to know everything about a tumour: what types of cells are in it, how many there are, what they are doing and exactly where they are located. Biopsies are very useful but current technologies used in the lab look at the sample or cells individually, rather than in the context of the surrounding environment. This provides researchers vital information about the separate components of a tumour, but the detailed overview of how the cells interact is missing.   

A detailed, 3D picture of a tumour would enable doctors and scientists to develop new ways to diagnose and treat the disease, stopping it from spreading and coming back.   

Tackling this challenge is IMAXT: a global team of experts from fields as diverse as medicine and astronomy, programming and molecular biology, and virtual reality (VR) and statistics. By combining existing techniques with entirely new approaches, IMAXT aims to build the first computerised 3D tumour that can be viewed in VR.

Building an atlas

IMAXT’s approach requires more than 20,000 pieces of data from every cell in a tumour – not just its position, shape and identity, but also detail on its genetics and the proteins found both inside it and on its surface.   

This high level of information can’t be captured with existing technology, so the team is building its own: a high-powered microscope attached to a device that slices samples into minute layers. All layers are thoroughly photographed and analysed before being recombined into a faithful, 3D representation of a tumour and its microenvironment, exactly as it was in the body.    

Scrutinising every detail of a tumour could transform the way doctors match patients to treatment. But this amount of information demands an entirely new mode of exploration and communication – and that’s where VR comes in. By viewing the data in a 3D virtual environment, users can walk right through the tumour, visualising the relationships between cells and performing scientific analyses in real-time.   

Professor Greg Hannon, Principal Investigator, IMAXT

Professor Greg Hannon, Team Lead

Senior Group Leader, CRUK Cambridge Institute

Building a tumour in virtual reality allows us to see information about the behaviour, location and characteristics of tumour cells all at the same time. This will help us understand more about tumours and begin to answer questions that have eluded cancer scientists for many years.

Stepping inside a tumour

This immersive experience also opens a new opportunity for collaboration. Researchers and physicians on different sides of the globe could meet in VR spaces to study a tumour in ways that simply aren’t possible in 2D. And for patients, having their clinical data presented in this way may help them to navigate some of their treatment options.   

By developing an entirely new way to study cancer, IMAXT hopes to change how people’s cancers are classified, treated and managed, giving more people a better chance of surviving their disease.   

Harnessing the power of data: no mean feat

Each sample collected and analysed by the team represents around 100 terabytes of data – more than twice the amount of information collected over the first 20 years of the Hubble Telescope.  

Professor Greg Hannon, Principal Investigator, IMAXT
Professor Sir Shankar Balasubramanian
Professor Bernd Bodenmiller
Professor Carlos Caldas
Dr Dario Bressan
Professor Johanna Joyce
Dr Nicholas Walton
Owen Harris
Professor Sam Aparicio
Professor Simon Tavaré
Professor Xiaowei Zhuang
Professor Edward Boyden
Dr Sohrab Shah
Elaine Chapman
Lynn Dundas