Biomedical Animation

Dr Maja Divjak works at the interface between art and science, using Biomedical Animation for the purposes of scientific education and illustration of biological processes

Many people are frightened of science, both the ideas and the language; we wish to remove this fear by making science accessible, through the use of captivating 3D representations, rather than abstract concepts.

The overwhelming power of biomedical animation is the ability to make the unseen, molecular world visible, as only the electron microscope is currently powerful enough to do that. Furthermore, biomedical animation can break down the barriers between empirical research, that is the people in white coats and the public. It acts as a conduit from a rarefied, often unseen world giving the layperson a greater understanding and insight into what our scientists get up to behind the closed doors of the lab. It gives access to new discoveries that might otherwise be very difficult to explain and promotes a sense of inclusiveness that has previously been lacking. It even has the power to offer insights to scientists, inspiring ideas they might not have had, until seeing their hero molecules in action.

Biomedical Animation at Peter Mac

At Peter Mac, we use 3D animation to compare normal biology with cancer biology, enabling cancer patients and the interested lay person to understand some of the molecular and cellular processes at play in cancer and so connect with their own bodies and biology. We also wish to inform the viewer about how Peter Mac is approaching the problem of cancer by conducting world-leading research and offering the most cutting-edge diagnostics, treatments, education and psychological support.

The animations we create are based on actual scientific data- the protein and DNA molecules you see are actually how they look- they are not just artistic interpretations. We spend large amounts of time researching these molecules and how they interact and many, many hours building them based on data available in the Protein Data Bank. Often, we are working right at the leading edge of research and some structures have simply not yet been determined. In these situations, we create an approximation of them based on their amino acid sequence, so we are still using scientific data as much as we can. We do, however, use artistic license when it comes to colour. This is contentious as most molecules are not inherently coloured. However, we feel that colour can be employed to great visual effect as it directs the viewer’s attention, can imply disease states and engages through sheer beauty.

The ultimate aim of our animations is to help people appreciate the beauty and drama unfolding in their own bodies at any given moment. Human biology is extraordinary!

Flagship Animation: What Goes Wrong in Cancer?

Our first official Peter Mac animation is a large and ambitious project which reveals the invisible molecular world within our cells and how this finely tuned world can occasionally become disrupted, leading to cancer. Peter Mac is also showcased as a world leader in cancer research, treatment and diagnostics and allied health, always employing the latest available technologies. As such, Peter Mac is Australia's only hospital solely dedicated to the overarching theme of cancer.

DNA Damage and Repair

We have also created edits from the flagship piece, breaking down the larger whole into easily accessible segments, designed to enable more focused learning. This segment outlines the DNA damage that we are subject to on a daily basis and some of the complex processes involved in DNA repair in the normal situation.

The Role of p53 in Cancer

This animation edit is about p53, which is a sentinel protein that responds to DNA damage. p53 sends the message to halt cell division until DNA is repaired, or If damage is too severe, the cell is destroyed. p53 is therefore known as the ‘guardian of the genome.’ A tiny change in p53 means no decisions can be made about whether to repair DNA or destroy the cell and without functional p53, cells can accumulate more and more DNA damage, possibly leading to cancer.

The Role of BRCA1 in Cancer

This next edit is about BRCA1, which is an integral protein in the DNA repair pathway. Inherited alterations in the structure of BRCA1 cause interruption of the DNA repair process, which over time, leads to accumulation of more and more DNA damage in cells. This greatly increases the risk for cancer. Women afflicted with these inherited changes in BRCA1 face a lifetime of constant surveillance and medical intervention to fight the possibility of cancer developing. At Peter Mac, we are at the forefront of cancer research, diagnostics, treatment and allied health and as such, we are uniquely placed to support women with BRCA1 mutations.

The Role of K-Ras in Cancer

The final edit in this series is about K-Ras, which is a protein that controls how often a cell divides. To do this it needs to be switched on before it can turn on cell division pathways. When no longer needed, it is then turned off. A tiny alteration in K-Ras leads to a protein that is always switched on, which means that the cell division pathways are also constantly switched on. In this situation, cells are more likely to multiply outside the normal limits controlling cell division, leading to formation of tumours.