Virtual humans to map the future of major surgery

Digital doppelgänger

Imagine you have some risky surgery coming up and the procedure could be tested first on your virtual twin - a computerised recreation of your body - to see how your metabolism might react.

It would be a kind of digital doppelgänger, not made of flesh and bone but bits and bytes. The doppelgänger would mirror everything from how your heart beats and your lungs work, right down to your personal DNA code. It could help to minimise the risks before surgery and anticipate any previously unexpected reactions or complications.

A group of researchers have been working on just such a project - and believe that the virtual humans they are building could have a profound impact on medicine and end up revolutionising healthcare.

The CompBioMed Centre of Excellence, funded by the European Union, is led by Professor Peter Coveney at University College, London.

Professor Coveney believes it will make a major impact:

”There's no doubt that the virtual doppelgänger will save lives. The reason being, that it's able to predict an outcome prior to it occurring.”

One of Prof Coveney's colleagues on the project is Andrea Townsend-Nicholson, Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at University College.

She says it's painstaking but important work:

“We are building the virtual human, piece by piece. It's revolutionary because when you look at a system, you look at the patient as an entire person.”

Bringing organs to virtual life

The project combines organ-specific data such as X-rays, MRI's and CAT scans along with genomic data and other information, which help to create the personalised virtual avatar.

Professor Townsend-Nicholson says it all builds into one whole, individual virtual body:

“We can take all the different sorts of systems that you can look at, that come from data that can be put into a computer - all the way from the bases and the letters of her genome, way up to her skeleton.”

To bring organs like the virtual heart to life, the scientists have developed many specialised programmes and algorithms.

Prof Coveney says each individual organ can be tailored to be just like the subject's:

“A virtual heart captures all the detail of the person whose heart we are looking at. And that can then be used in advance of surgery if there is a problem with arrhythmia and heart attacks, so that the surgeon can preplan an operation and maximise the benefit of it.

“My view of the virtual human is, that it's an organising principle for medicine in the 21st century and beyond.”

Virtualising something as complicated as a human body requires enormous computational power. Some of the cutting-edge computer simulations are being conducted at the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences, using the Super MUC-NG - Germany's most powerful supercomputer.

Professor Dieter Kranzmüller, Chairman of the Board of Directors at the centre, says a huge amount of data is involved:

“Supercomputers are used for very big modelling and simulations. The computing power that our SuperMUC has today, we'll probably have in our Ipads or Smartphones in 10 or 20 years time!

"We try to simulate today what we will need in 15 or 20 years for personalised medicine on the ground in the hospitals.”

Identifying potential issues

The flow of red blood cells in our veins is one of the systems that scientists are now able to visualise via the supercomputers.

Gerald Mathias, the application support manager at the centre, says this helps to identify potential issues:

“We have big models of arteries where you look at how the blood cells flow through them and where there may be constrictions.

It is always important that the data you get out of the calculations is illustrated and visualised."

The virtual human project aims to tackle all human health conditions including COVID-19, cancer and other serious conditions.

It's also about helping people to have a positive impact on their lifestyle.

The team are confident that the goal of building a digital doppelgänger, bringing the whole virtual human to life, will motivate scientists far into the future.

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