This weekend, the labyrinth of Chicago’s Hyatt Hotel complex is packed with scientists and journalists, all dashing back and forth between panel discussions and poster presentations. They’ve abandoned their loved ones this Valentine’s Day to attend the annual meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
The theme of this year’s AAAS meeting is “Meeting Global Challenges: Discovery and Innovation.” The first challenge I learned about this morning? Building a virtual human.
Why are so many scientists researching the idea of the “virtual human”? Almost all agree that the pace of research is too slow. By the time a drug or therapy makes it from the lab to the market, months, years, sometimes decades have gone by. Yet computers can simulate many of the functions of the human body, and at a much faster rate. Computer science can also be used to improve human health by tracking and identifying dangerous health trends.
The concept of “virtual human” can be applied in many different fields – from mapping a patient’s whole health portfolio to simulating the actions of a single molecule. This morning, much of the most exciting research in this field coalesced in one small conference room, where researchers across the globe presented their own efforts to create virtual human systems.
There was a surprise appearance in the newsroom this morning. Peter Coveney, director of the U.K.’s Centre for Computational Science, brought along a 3D printed model as a demonstration of a new project called the Virtual Human Simulation Initiative. Coveney hopes to blend the fields of computer science and medicine to improve patient outcomes.
“Clinical trials that involve lots of real people and tons of time can hopefully one day be replaced,” he said. “Computer models are, absolutely, complicated. But they’re doable today.”
There are also major efforts to combine the principles of computer science and medicine here in the United States. Leroy Hood, a pioneer of systems biology, announced a bold new plan for a longitudinal study that will run for several decades, much like the Framingham heart study. Starting with a pilot group of about 100 patients, the study will measure six different types of physiological data for each participant and store each patient profile in the cloud. During this pilot phase, “coaches” will tease out the trends in that data to help patients make lifestyle changes, hopefully before disease takes hold.
“We are quite certain we have the framework analytic approach to do this. The purpose of the 100-patient pioneer project is to prove that we can do it, and to train coaches to translate the complexities of the data into actionable options,” Hood said.
Hood is the founder of the Institute for Systems Biology. This study will ultimately enroll 100,000 patients and track them over the course of 20 or more years. All participants must be healthy at enrollment and the goal is to use powerful mathematical algorithms to identify their health trends over time. Ideally, their care will become a model of the idealized proactive prevention rather than reactive treatment.
While Hood is working on whole-human health, Vijay Chandru is focused on one organ, the liver. His company, Strand Life Science, owns a virtual liver that has the computational power to test the toxic effect of different substances before they are tested in a human or animal.
“Through the virtual liver, we are able to predict toxicity of chemical and drug candidates.This is being piloted by chemical companies and pharmaceutical companies as a model for finding toxicity,” Chandru said.
Creating a virtual liver is one thing, but creating a virtual ballerina? Computer graphics scientist Nadia Magnenat Thalmann is using advanced imaging techniques to understand more about the complicated injuries suffered by ballerinas and other athletes. Her research involves six highly trained ballerinas who are experiencing hip cartilage deformation because of their strenuous performances.
Thalmann said she has always been fascinated by virtual humans and the potential of avatars, but now she’s creating computer simulation that map the human body in motion.
“What’s really interesting is to be able to virtually model the physiological human,” she said.
Through MRI imaging and optical motion capture systems, she and those at MIRAlab have created a computer-simulated hip model that precisely replicates cartilage damage.
Other presenters this morning included Christian Jacob, PhD, a computer scientist who is integrating iPad displays into the classroom for educational purposes and Terrance Stewart, who is using a virtual brain model to make connections between neurological signals and their correlated human behavior.
At MedTechBoston, we are sharing stories about cutting-edge medical innovation. As Managing Editor, I help coordinate our coverage of hackathons and company profiles. I also create content, update our social media and scout stories. I'm part of an ambitious group of people hoping to inspire a tech revolution in medical care.
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