NIH-backed VR prototype will let people explore gene-environment interaction

The NIH, the National Human Genome Research Institute and PreviewLab have teamed up to create a VR experience that lets participants see how our genes are impacted by environmental factors.
By Laura Lovett
12:16 pm

There is a new way to explore gene-environment interaction (GxE) thanks to a new virtual reality prototype. The new technology was born out of a partnership between the National Human Genome Research Institute and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and PreviewLab, who will be developing the technology. 

GxE refers to the combination of our genes and environmental factors including mold, pesticides, foods and air quality, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

The prototype is set to be rolled out during a new study where “participants will encounter several concrete examples of GxE.” Using an HTC Vive VR headset and a Vive Tracker, users will be able to see a vignette of how everyday situations can impact those genes, according to a statement.

“These trackers allow bringing physical elements into VR environments. We will use this to bring a real-world chair into the virtual environment, allowing us to experiment with seamless transitions between standing and seated VR experiences – without ever taking off the VR headset,” Bernard François, founder of PreviewLabs, said in a statement. “This is something we have not experienced ourselves before, so we’re excited about seeing how this would help maintaining a more consistent level of immersion throughout the experience.”


The goal of the project is to educate people on how their genes are affected in the short and long terms by these situations. It's part of the National Human Genome Research Institute's Communications, Attitudes and Behavior Unity, led by Dr. Susan Persky.

"The Communication, Attitudes and Behavior Unit (CABU) encompasses the Immersive Virtual Testing Area (IVETA), an experimental behavioral science research laboratory at the NIH Clinical Center," the Institute explains on its website. "The testing area specializes in virtual reality (VR) and other innovative technologies. It is home to several collaborations in which these technologies are applied to projects that advance knowledge at the intersections of genomics, human behavior and society. The IVETA enables forward-looking research questions and the application of forward-looking methodologies. Work in the IVETA also aims to refine and extend VR and related methodological and measurement approaches."


VR has frequently been used to educate the public and patients about health. Some examples of patient education in the past include Cedars Sinai partnering with Holman United Methodist Church in south LA on a community health education initiative aimed at reducing hypertension in a vulnerable population. BioLucid, now part of Sharecare after a 2017 acquisition, has also worked on patient education via VR. 

Last year Boston Children’s Hospital announced that it was teaming up with Klick Health to bring pediatric patients HealthVoyager, a medication education and patient experience platform that uses VR to show patients their individual medical findings in an immersive 3D environment. The initiative will be part of a validation study to gauge the technology's effect on patient and family understanding and engagement. 


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