Real-life Avatar that promises a healthcare revolution

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It sounds like something from science fiction.

But world-class researchers and doctors from Yorkshire are collaborating on revolutionary work to create a digital patient.

Dr Julian Gunn from Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust at the Insigneo Institute for in Silico Medicine at Sheffield University.

Dr Julian Gunn from Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust at the Insigneo Institute for in Silico Medicine at Sheffield University.

The computer-based lifelike simulation of individual patients will allow doctors to improve diagnosis and treatment by better predicting how each will respond to therapies for a range of common complaints – and could one day also allow more people to take charge of their own health.

The advance is not only designed to improve care using tailored treatment but will also offer personalised health forecasts of how patients will fare in future based on their condition.

Experts hope it will also speed up and cut the costs of the development of new drugs and devices as well as reduce animal research and risks to patients in clinical trials.

The advances were showcased yesterday at the launch of the Insigneo Institute, a joint venture between 80 Sheffield University researchers and doctors from Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which confirms the city’s place as the UK’s international leader in the cutting-edge field.

It has already attracted £10m in investment, with millions more expected to be awarded to further develop the technology which has been made possible thanks to major advances in computing over the past decade.

The work will help doctors understand more about the way an individual’s body behaves and allow them to tailor treatments to a patient’s own personal characteristics.

Insigneo’s scentific director Prof Marco Viceconti said: “What we are trying to do is take information about an individual patient and use this to build a computer model that produces something specific about the health of that person – for instance their risk of having a bone fracture in the next 10 years.”

Already computer simulations have successfully predicted treatment outcomes for 20 patients with coronary artery problems at Sheffield’s Northern General Hospital. A new trial to refine the process involving 100 patients is due to begin next month.

Experts believe it holds out the prospect of improving treatment of heart disease which remains the UK’s biggest killer.

Cardiologist Julian Gunn said treatment decisions for patients with diseased coronary arteries were currently based on two-dimensional black and white X-ray images.

An estimated 250,000 of the angiograms are carried out each year in the UK.

“We can image coronary arteries and find out where blockages are but making the decisions about how we treat patients is quite tricky,” he said.

Computer models harnessing personal details about patients’ arteries open up the prospect of simulating how different options will work, leading to more effective treatment, better outcomes, improved safety and cash savings.

“It is a huge step. The basic difference is that it’s incorporating computer science into healthcare,” he said.

“When we carry out an angiogram, we make quality judgments on the basis of a single two-dimensional image which are down to experience. Now we would say that is wholly inadequate – we need a more systematic approach using the technology.”

Prof Wendy Tindale, scientific director at the Sheffield trust, said the creation of a complete “digital avatar” was still some way off but the technology already allowed experts to simulate activities on computers before they were tested for real.

“What we want is a model personalised to the individual. We don’t just want to be saying this drug works in most 50-year-old males but simulate what is most likely to work for an individual because we know about their personal physiological characteristics,” she said.

Prof Viceconti said it could lead to the creation of a “digital guardian angel” and personal health forecasting.

In diabetes, this could mean patients managing their condition better by taking their own measurements and testing the results using new simulation technology.

“This type of revolution is pervasive,” he added.

“It will have applications in processes we can’t even imagine today.”