Visualising the future of biomedicine

Many aspects of science and medicine are not only impossible to observe, but also difficult to imagine when described with words alone. Visualisation is a powerful tool for presenting ideas about science and medicine.

Creative practitioners around the world are increasingly working with scientists to find new ways to visualise complex systems and Australia is actively involved in these kinds of cutting edge animation projects.

The VIZBIplus – Visualising the Future of Biomedicine project funded by Inspiring Australia is just one example of a how powerful 3D animation software and real research discoveries can tell amazing science stories to the general public who may have limited scientific knowledge.

“The molecular world is astonishing and can be a strikingly beautiful place,” says Dr Kate Patterson, a visual science communicator at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research.

As part of VIZBIplus, Kate is one of three scientist-animators being mentored by one of the world’s leading animators, Drew Berry, who works with the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) in Melbourne. Drew Berry’s incredible 3D animated sequences accurately portray what is known from up to date research. For example, how a neuron pulses with electric messages, how there’s a ceaseless rush of blood cells in arteries and how a tumour develops. Trained as a cell biologist and microscopist, he brings a rigorous scientific approach to each project, immersing himself in relevant research to ensure current data are represented.

Using the tools of cinematography, storyboarding, graphic design and sound engineering, animations are increasingly being used to communicate modern, complex science and promoting public understanding and awareness of what is happening in science and medical research. This opens up a whole new arena for creative practitioners with an interest in science, and for creative scientists alike. The biomedical animations produced by Kate and her fellow VIZBIplus colleagues Chris Hammang(CSIRO) and Dr Maja Divjak (WEHI) have recently been screened for the first time at Melbourne’s spectacular glass-walled Deakin Edge theatre in Federation Square.

Their animated clips are a labour of love and have been a year in the making. Using the same animation software as Dreamworks and Pixar Animation Studios and video game creators, the biomedical animators have created mesmerising magnifications of our interior molecular landscapes. While fantastic, the animations are not fantasies. They are well-researched 3D representations of what actually happens in our bodies at the micro scale.

Kate Patterson’s animation shows that cancer is not a single disease. She highlights the role of the tumour suppressor protein p53, known as ‘the guardian of the cell’, in the formation of many cancer types.

“Mutated p53 is just one of thousands of mistakes that can occur in cancer,” said Kate. “DNA sequencing and other new technologies now enable these mistakes to be detected in individual cancers. What’s really exciting is that different types of cancer can share some molecular mistakes which means treatments developed for one cancer could be used to treat another.”

Chris Hammang’s animation describes how starch gets broken down in the gut. It is based on CSIRO health research about ‘resistant starch’, which protects against colorectal cancer, one of Australia’s biggest killers. Chris hopes viewers will see the importance of eating beans and other foods rich in resistant starch.

Maja Divjak’s animation (image below) highlights how diseases associated with inflammation, such as type 2 diabetes, are ‘lifestyle’ diseases that represent some of the greatest health threats of the 21st century.

“My animation focuses on the role of the newly-discovered ‘inflammasome’ in type 2 diabetes, which is being studied by WEHI researchers. The inflammasome is a really amazing structure assembled by the immune system to protect the body from foreign invaders. However it also plays a key role in the development and progression of chronic immune disorders such as type 2 diabetes.”

Watch the animations created by the VIZBIplus team online

Call for participation
Vivid Ideas and the VIZBiplus is now inviting artists who work with scientists and vice versa to share their work with other like-minded people at ‘Making Science Beautiful’, an event at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney on Thursday 29 May as part of the Vivid Festival. A limited number of participants to will be able to briefly introduce themselves and their work to the audience (in 30 seconds, and using one projected image), and then present a poster or interactive demonstration. Learn more about the VIZBIplus Challenge

The goal of VIZBIplus is to train three scientists to create scientifically accurate 3D animations that explain the latest biomedical research in a way that inspires and engages the general public, and then present this work in public events to maximise the reach of the work.

Learn more