MISSION: Dr Michael McAuliffe lost his son Conor to liver cancer when he was just three-years-old. He has been working with charity cancer Tour de Cure since 2011.
MISSION: Dr Michael McAuliffe lost his son Conor to liver cancer when he was just three-years-old. He has been working with charity cancer Tour de Cure since 2011. Cordell Richardson

Funding given to combat cancer with virtual reality

IT'S easy to sympathise with someone who has lost a child.

But an Ipswich orthopaedic surgeon says the true depths of despair are hard to explain unless it has happened to you.

It is a reality for Dr Michael McAuliffe after he lost his son Conor to liver cancer in 2006 when he was just three-years-old.

He had only been diagnosed 18 months prior.

It is that loss that drives Dr McAuliffe each day in his work with cancer charity Tour de Cure, which has raised over $42 million since 2007 to fund research for a cure.

The charity have partnered with Sony Foundation Australia to award three grants worth over $500,000 for projects using virtual reality to combat cancer.

As a panellist, Dr McAuliffe played his part in which projects would receive funding.

One of the major grant winners will utilise VR technology to traverse large groups of young people suffering from cancer, focusing on their specific genetic and biological information and comparing them to each other.

This will allow researchers to identify the unique genetic and biological traits that characterise each patient, and ultimately inform a clinician on the best possible therapy for the individual cancer patient.

Another major winner will use VR as a diagnostic and educational tool to create three dimensional models to visually represent what is happening within cancerous tumours on a molecular and mechanical level.

This research project will aid communication about rare cancers between peers, educators, students and medical professionals alike.

The development project grant will explore the possibilities to provide cancer patients with ongoing and readily available virtual psychologists and cognitive pain management therapies.

This will come in the form of VR psychologists and visual therapies, allowing a patient to direct their own pain management and empower them to manage their own therapy, in their own time.


Conor McAuliffe died from cancer at age three.
Photo: Contributed
Conor McAuliffe died from cancer at age three. Contributed

"(The major projects) are designed to take incredibly complex information and the let the doctors see it in a way (they) can understand," Dr McAuliffe said.

"You can print up a three dimensional model of a single cell and within that cell see all the tiny little parts of how that cell functions.

"There's a practical difficulty for the doctor who is seeing the patient at bedside to see what the ultrastructure of the cancer is doing six levels below the cell and trying to connect that up to try and make the right decisions.

"Just because you've studied something for 20 years doesn't mean the answer always jumps out at you.

"(The development project) is to help patients to take that incredibly detailed knowledge and say well this is you, this is how it fits, this is the treatment we're selecting instead of this one. It's to help the patients to understand the treatment and decision processes."

He said his work with the charity was an obligation to his beloved son, and others like him.

"(Conor) had a lot of chemotherapy and big operations and he was the kind of person that might of benefited from this new technology," he said.

"Anyone who has lost a child, that's something that stays with you forever."