As engineers and medics pool their talents, could computer generated patients be the key to the long term future of the NHS? Sarah Freeman reports.
For the past 12 months in the laboratories of Sheffield University a team of engineers and medics have been working on a project which, if their hunch is right, could revolutionise health care. Together, they’ve been building a human body.
It sounds straight from the pages of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and even those behind it have described it as the real Transcendence Project after the recent film starring Johnny Depp as a doctor who creates a computer which supersedes the abilities of the human brain.
However, the work which has been going on inside the Insigneo Institute is more science fact than science fiction and this week the first stage of the experiment was revealed at a showcase at the university.
“What we are working on here will be vital to the future of health care,” says Dr Keith McCormack who leads business development at the institute.
“If you are building a bridge you test it using a computer model. If you’re designing a new car, you put it through its virtual paces. In fact the only thing that doesn’t use this kind of modelling is medicine, at least not until now. It’s madness when you think about it.
“Why don’t we use computers to track the likely progress of an aneurism or the point at which certain bones will fracture? There’s no easy answer to that question. Medicine could benefit greatly from the same kind of computer technology which has revolutionised other industries.
“That’s why this project was set up and while we are only one year in, we have already taken some big steps forward.”
Using state-of-the art technology, the Sheffield team has created its first computer generated patients which will allow doctors to not only map likely progression of diseases, but also test potential treatments.
It is hoped that eventually the project could replace expensive clinical trial, saving an already cash strapped NHS millions of pounds a year, while at the same time improving outcomes for patients.
“Pressures are mounting on health and treatment resources worldwide,” says Dr McCormack. “If we don’t invest in these kind of computer simulated projects there will come a point that the NHS simply can’t cope and that point is not as far off as we might like to think”
The Virtual Physiological Human, which now boasts more than 120 academics and clinicians, is backed by the European Commission which over the last seven years has ploughed more than £180m into similar schemes in a number of other countries.
Eventually, it is hoped that the technology being pioneered in Sheffield will be in use across all medical departments. However, currently the team is focusing on how it can transform the diagnosis and treatment pulmonary disease, fracture risk, Parkinson’s disease and coronary artery disease.
In the case of the latter, it is hoped that by using computer technology doctors will be better able to assess just how significant the disease is in individual patients and reduce the need for invasive tests.
“Heart disease remains one of the world’s biggest killers so we are delighted that the Sheffield team is leading the way with this research,” says Dr Julian Gunn, a consultant cardiologist at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and a senior lecturer at the university’s department of cardiovascular science.
“When complete, the virtual human will be the most sophisticated application of computing technology in healthcare,” adds Dr McCormack. “We are some years off that point, but these are exciting times.
“We can’t go on as we are and this kind of technology has to be part of a 21st-century health service.”