A trial has confirmed that virtual reality helps children calmly receive radiotherapy treatment, and the technology could help prevent the use of general anaesthetic.

The Murdoch Children's Research Institute (MCRI) and Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre trial involved 30 cancer participants, aged six to 18 years, who used Virtual Reality (VR) goggles to simulate an immersive experience of the treatment before it began.

Following the VR experience, both the children and their parents reported reduced anxiety and improved understanding of the radiotherapy process.

Dr Maria McCarthy, head of the Psycho-oncology Program for the Children's Cancer Centre within The Royal Children's Hospital, and member of the MCRI Take a Breath research program, said researchers tested a range of physical measures including nausea and markers of anxiety and mood to get a genuine sense of whether it could impact quality of life.

"These kids are quite isolated," Dr McCarthy said. "They're at their most intense phase of treatment so it was important we didn't just measure if they liked it or not. We wanted to know if immersive experiences like VR can help kids maintain a semblance of quality of life during treatment, and we found that VR is a small incremental step in maintaining quality of life for kids with cancer."

Young children in particular often need a general anaesthetic to ensure they can have radiotherapy, meaning repeated anaesthetics over their radiotherapy cycle. Results from this study, which were published in Elsevier, showed that 29 out of the 30 children did not need a general anaesthetic for their radiotherapy, which is a positive sign that VR can help avert general anaesthetic use in these patients.

When Dr McCarthy was first approached by MCRI's Bytes4health proof-of-concept digital health program to consider looking into the effectiveness of virtual reality experiences on the wellbeing of these kids, she was incredibly open to the idea.

"Like most people, I was very aware of VR and its use in gaming and entertainment, but unaware of its potential utility in a clinical setting," Dr McCarthy said. "A lot of our inpatients can experience isolation, loneliness and boredom at times, so I could see a place for an immersive experience like VR."

The MCRI Bytes4health program ran in 2016 in collaboration with Curve Tomorrow and allowed select digital health and medtech start-ups to work with teams at MCRI to access cutting edge medical research, clinical expertise and digital health product development experience. Bytes4Health was made possible through the support of Konica Minolta, KPMG, Corum Group and MCRI's Seed Fund partner the Tegmen Fund.

Immersive technology studio Phoria received $25,000 from Bytes4Health in 2016 and put the grant towards the development and evaluation of their VR platform DREAM3D, while working closely with research and clinical leaders at MCRI. DREAM3D was looking to test and validate the clinical benefits of using VR to improve the wellbeing of chronically ill children who were spending a lot of time in hospital.

Thanks to the Bytes4Health program, Phoria worked closely with Dr McCarthy and her team to develop the content which included three 10-minute VR experiences with an animal and nature theme.

Dr Michelle Tennant, who also took part in the trial, said she hopes evidence from VR-based interventions like this can be rapidly translated into clinical practice to enhance psychological wellbeing, adjustment to illness and treatment of children with cancer.