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Digital body doubles – welcome to the future of healthcare

Posted by Katia Bouznik on 3rd April 2013

Personalisation and integration are two words that have taken the digital world by storm over the last year. Now it seems these strategies are shaping up to define the future of medicine.

This month we examine whether a personalised virtual human body double, which gets ill so you don’t have to, is in our healthcare future.

Personalisation via simulation

Powerful simulation technology means that we are closer than ever to creating a ‘digital human’ replica of ourselves. Based on genetics and static images from scans, simulation tools will be able to create virtual body doubles of patients.

Opening the door to personalised medicine, these models will allow doctors to test the effects of drugs and surgery on individuals without laying a finger on them, as well as spotting future diseases and even predicting death dates.

Data-driven medicine

We’re already familiar with predictive medicine, for example statistical models for heart disease and women undergoing testing for breast cancer genes.

However, these models are based on averages and don’t take the body’s chemistry into account. Personalised medicine is taking things one-step further.

Building an individualised biological profile of the entire human body, from genes through to whole organ systems, will allow doctors to move away from the experimental medicine of today to data-driven, bespoke healthcare.

Researchers have already developed models of many of the major biological systems. An example is the GENIUS project that was run by scientists at University College London (UCL) and the University of Manchester.

GENIUS models blood-flow through the elaborate system of arteries, capillaries and veins in the brain. Using complex fluid-dynamics algorithms, GENIUS makes it possible to reconstruct patients’ unique brain vasculature based on MRI scans.

By monitoring blood velocity and pressure through these vessels, scientists are able to identify possible sites of a future aneurysm; a common sudden killer.

The beauty of models like this is that they’re interactive. Doctors are able to perform a number of virtual surgeries to see how they will affect all regions of the brain and choose the best option for each patient.

An integrated approach 

While the ability to digitally simulate biological functions isn’t anything new, integrating these with each other is only now beginning to look like a real possibility.

As organ simulations become more detailed, they can be combined to mimic larger biological systems, connecting a model of the brain to one of the heart. Eventually this integration will lead to a complete digital human.

Global incentives, like the Virtual Physiological Human (VPH) project, are aiming to do just this. Scientists around the world are sharing their organ models to produce a collaborative virtual human framework that can be adapted to each patient.

Can too much knowledge be a bad thing?

It’s hard to argue that personalised and integrated medicine won’t improve healthcare and extend lifespan, but can we take personalisation too far? Do we really want to know everything about ourselves?

On the one hand, it would be a giant leap forward in medicine to consider the human body as one integrated system. Doctors would take a more holistic approach to healthcare, treating the whole system, rather than focusing on one specific organ.

On the other hand, there are many societal, ethical, financial and legal questions that need to be considered. Would insurance companies demand to see a timeline of your future health before taking you on?

Although there are many things to be addressed before a digital human can be implemented clinically, one thing is clear, computer modelling and simulation is no longer just for McLaren and Ferrari; it will play a central role in the future of medicine.

Photo courtesy of Digitalbob8.