European researchers have been building the Virtual Physiological Human (VPH), a full computer model of the body. Through this process, an EU-funded project focused on improving cardiovascular care, and several key results are now being implemented by industry.
The ultimate aim of all this is to turn basic science into real medical practices that will benefit patients and improve care standards.
“A key phrase that goes with VPH is personalised medicine,” explains John Fenner, part of the VPH-CaSE project coordination team, and senior lecturer of medical physics at the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom.
“Take drugs for instance. A doctor might typically give slightly different doses according to patient weight. But more crudely, decisions on what drugs are given tend to be based on distinct population groups, and this is typically a one-size-fits-all solution.”
The VPH approach seeks to resolve this issue with computational models, built on an improved understanding of how the human body works overall. This way, ineffective drugs can be weeded out before they go to trial, potentially saving billions in drug development.
“This can help to deliver more effective treatments with fewer side effects, tailored to the individual,” adds Fenner. “The same goes for prosthetics and medical instruments.”
Another important element of VPH is multiscale modelling, simulating and interconnecting processes from the ‘macro’ to the ‘micro’. Understanding bones at a macroscopic scale (e.g. strength, weight, stiffness, etc.) is not enough to develop an effective prosthetic; you also need to think about impacts at the cellular level.
Think about going to the gym. If you pull weights, your muscles get bigger because of micro-changes in your muscle cells. What we need is modelling that spans all these scales, from skeletal structure to cellular processes.”
John Fenner, VPH-CaSE Project Coordination Team, Senior Lecturer of Medical Physics, University of Sheffield
Improving cardiac care
As part of the VPH Initiative, the EU-funded VPH-CaSE project was launched in 2015 with a focus on delivering potential new tools and methods to improve cardiac care. The project, funded through the EU’s Marie SkÅ‚odowska-Curie programme, brought together 14 bright early-stage researchers to examine a range of topics, ranging from the behaviour of heart cells to an examination of populations.
“All this research fed into the work of others,” notes Fenner. “Such cross-fertilisation, using other findings and models to augment your own research, is all part of the VPH ethos.”
The 14 research projects were focused on three key clusters, covering cardiac tissue function and cardiac support, cardiovascular haemodynamics (the study of blood circulation) and image-based diagnosis. Industrial and clinical partners were involved, providing the team of researchers with valuable work experience, and ensuring that their projects focused on solving real-world challenges.
“Some students were placed in small companies to help build and test better medical imaging equipment,” adds Fenner. “For an academic institution like ours, having the opportunity to work with an industry like this is like gold dust.”
A bright future
Fenner’s colleague at the University of Sheffield Andrew Narracott describes the VPH-CaSE project as another brick in the path towards personalised medicine and improved medical diagnostic technology. “This is a long path, and we have a long way to go, but you need to put the stones down to get to the destination,” he explains.
“Arguably, a good metric of success is the quality of training our students received. It is gratifying that they have ended up either in further research or in industry. One of our students now works at the National Physical Laboratory (the United Kingdom’s national measurement standards laboratory). For us, this is a great success.”
Furthermore, some of the technology developed during the project has been continued. An ultrasound testing system for example is now evolving into a new tool to test magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) systems.
“We are continuing our collaboration with SMEs established during VPH-CaSE, with a view to eventually commercialising technologies where possible,” notes Fenner. “One of our students has continued their work with industry to help develop computational solutions to aid surgical interventions. These ongoing interactions demonstrate how ideas with the potential to improve cardiovascular care have been picked up by industry and researchers.”
A broader benefit of the project, Fenner believes, has been the contribution to the public’s mindset about the value of computational methods in medicine. “A particular highlight was our involvement in an art exhibition in London,” he says.
“One of the modelling technologies developed within the project was displayed as a piece of dynamic sculpture. This was a very rewarding exercise and provided a completely different perspective on our research. Interaction with the public also forced our researchers to think differently about their work, to consider perhaps more the societal benefits of what they do. This broader perspective will be invaluable to their careers.”