Building a virtual human with your data

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Media captionRory Cellan-Jones checks out how a virtual heart can be used with Dr Paul Morris

Nowadays, just about any designer or engineer working on a new car, an aircraft or a suspension bridge will begin with a computer model. Whether it is examining airflows over a wing or the impact of thousands of vehicles on a road, the process will start in the virtual world.

But when it comes to medicine and working out the impact of treatment or a new drug, then doctors still reach for a stethoscope not a mouse. That, however, may be about to change - as I discovered in Sheffield this week.

At Sheffield University's Insigneo Institute, academics and doctors have set out on a mission to build a virtual human being, a software replica of every aspect of the body. The idea is to move healthcare onto a new more advanced level with something called In Silico medicine.

What's that? "It's the use of sophisticated computer simulation to improve healthcare, diagnosis and treatment," Dr Keith McCormack explained to me on a tour of the institute, where he is the business development director. "It's surprising that medicine has been the last major human activity to succumb to this, but now it's here and it promises to revolutionise healthcare."

We wandered from room to room, finding researchers in front of screens working on a variety of projects. One was modelling the female pelvic floor to examine the stresses involved in childbirth, another was building a complex model of the human spine to help doctors treating back pain.

"Lower back pain is extremely difficult to treat," explained Dr McCormack. "What we're hoping to do is illuminate that process for any clinician so that they can examine in the computer the various treatment alternatives, and project them forward in time to see how they would have improved the patient's condition."

Image copyright Insigneo

Our next stop was Sheffield's Northern General hospital where we found another example of this multi-faceted project. In a cardiac catheter lab, Dr Paul Morris showed me his Virtu Heart software, designed to help in the treatment of coronary artery disease.

Right now, doctors look at angiograms when deciding on treatment, but they give just a black and white two dimensional picture: "Our research is turning these angiograms into three dimensional models which simulate what goes on inside the coronary artery," Dr Morris explained. "We know that if doctors use this to improve patient care, then it produces better outcomes. It will save money and allow us to make better decisions."

The Sheffield doctors and academics have got substantial EU funding, but building the virtual human will take a long time and at the heart of the project is the need to collect a lot of data.

"I can't stress how important this is," says Dr McCormack. "Of course, to treat individual patients we need their personal data but to build our models in the first place we need comprehensive information from as wide a patient base as possible."

He stresses that this information will be in anonymised form, but accepts that the current concern about the security of patient information is an issue. "There should be a lively public debate about this," he says, "but our view in the In Silico medicine world is that there is little downside to this. The benefits are so enormous, our technology will leap ahead if we can have access to anonymised patient data."

Big claims are being made for "big data" - and privacy campaigners are raising all sorts of red flags about what companies might do with it. But the medical world believes that the computer-based revolution in healthcare will not make much progress unless we all agree to feed our data into the researchers' models.