Testing treatments in a virtual world
Imagine if your GP or consultant were able to show you, through a computerised model of yourself, the effects of potential treatments on your body.
That is the vision of the Institute for Biomedical Imaging and Modelling (INSIGNEO), a new research institute set up by the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.
Researchers at the Institute are developing models of different parts of the human body, which will ultimately build into a complete digital replica of a patient. Medical information, from details as simple as age and weight to more complex data taken from scans and x-rays, will be fed into the models to provide an overall picture of an individual patient's condition, against which different treatments can then be tested.
Speaking at a press conference to launch UK National Science and Engineering Week, Director of INSIGNEO, Professor Alejandro Frangi, of the University's Department of Mechanical Engineering, explained: "By developing models of complete organ systems, such as the cardiovascular system, we can help clinicians predict whether a visible narrowing in a coronary artery, for example, is significant enough to cause constriction of blood supply, and whether the patient would benefit from having a stent fitted, or not. Although it is difficult to make these kinds of predictions on visual appearance alone, clinicians are often forced to do so, and quite frequently get it wrong.
"We prefer to consider not just the measurement of the narrowing, but to put it in context. Diseases such as atherosclerosis, which causes hardening of the arteries, are in fact multifactorial or systemic, and our models will enable doctors to handle illnesses like that in a more holistic way."
The University's School of Medicine has been instrumental in the establishment of the new institute.
Dr Patricia Lawford, Senior Lecturer of Medical Physics at the University of Sheffield, said: "This model personalises the diagnosis procedure. Rather than treating and focusing on the disease, this revolutionary technology means the focus is on the patient and their individual needs."
Dr Julian Gunn, Senior Lecturer of Cardiovascular Science at the University of Sheffield said: "This groundbreaking technology will see patients' treatment move from the 19th century into the 22nd century. From subjective assessment of 2D images of the coronary arteries, for example, we will move to an era of complete, personalised, comprehensive, automated, 3D anatomical and physiological assessment, deciding in an objective way what the best plan of treatment for a specific patient with coronary artery disease should be."
The researchers are working first on developing models of the cardiac and the neuro-musculo-skeletal systems. Examples of the areas already well advanced include:
• A model of the heart's aortic valve to help clinicians decide, in cases of heart valve failure, when a valve will need repair without the need for invasive, and often inaccurate, tests. As artificial valves have a finite lifespan, the timing of repair is crucial. The model is personalised using data on heart rate and blood flow.
• A model of a cerebral aneurysm, already being piloted with patients, supports clinicians in predicting the likelihood of rupture, when treatment is necessary and what sort of treatment will work best. The model is personalised using data taken from X-ray or MRI scans, showing the shape of the aneurysm and blood flow dynamics.
• A musculo-skeletal model to help predict likelihood of bone fracture in vulnerable elderly patients based on bone density data from scans and gait analysis to show forces exerted on the bones during movement.
INSIGNEO will see researchers based in the Faculty of Engineering and the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health at the University working alongside clinicians from the NHS Foundation Trust and it is this link between research and clinical practice that is crucial for its success. The initial development of new models will benefit from a rich source of anonymised patient data on a range of conditions, and the collaboration will ensure that all developments are clinically relevant and can easily transfer into practice.
Consultant Clinical Scientist and Scientific Director at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals, Professor Wendy Tindale said: "There's a desperate need to find new technologies that can help us improve the treatments we provide to patients, but too often developments by academics never cross over into clinical practice.
"What is different about INSIGNEO is the direct link between engineers, computer scientists, clinical researchers and practising clinicians. This ensures the models we develop will be relevant to, and therefore will be used in, the clinic."
Notes for Editors: University of Sheffield
With nearly 25,000 students from 125 countries, the University of Sheffield is one of the UK's leading and largest universities. A member of the Russell Group, it has a reputation for world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.
The University of Sheffield has been named University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards for its exceptional performance in research, teaching, access and business performance. In addition, the University has won four Queen's Anniversary Prizes (1998, 2000, 2002, 2007). These prestigious awards recognise outstanding contributions by universities and colleges to the United Kingdom's intellectual, economic, cultural and social life. Sheffield also boasts five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and many of its alumni have gone on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence around the world.
The University's research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls Royce, Unilever, Boots, AstraZeneca, GSK, ICI, Slazenger, and many more household names, as well as UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.
The University has well-established partnerships with a number of universities and major corporations, both in the UK and abroad. Its partnership with Leeds and York Universities in the White Rose Consortium has a combined research power greater than that of either Oxford or Cambridge.
Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
Sheffield Teaching Hospitals is the UK's largest NHS Foundation Trust and one of the largest and busiest teaching hospital trusts. It has over 15,000 staff caring for over a million patients each year at five hospitals.
The Royal Hallamshire Hospital
The Northern General Hospital
Charles Clifford Dental Hospital
Weston Park Cancer Hospital
Jessop Wing Maternity Hospital
The Trust offers a full range of local hospital and community services for people in Sheffield, specialist services to patients from further afield. It is recognised internationally for its work in neurosciences, spinal injuries, cancer, transplantation and orthopaedics. It is one of only a handful of hospital Trusts to have been awarded the highest rating of 'excellent' for both the quality of its services and its financial management, three years running. The Trust has been named Dr Foster Trust of the Year three times in five years.
British Science Association – National Science and Engineering Week
Established in 1831, the British Science Association organises major initiatives across the UK, including the annual British Science Festival, National Science and Engineering Week, programmes of regional and local events, and an extensive programme for young people in schools and colleges.
It seeks to achieve that by connecting science with people: promoting openness about science in society and affirming science as a prime cultural force through engaging and inspiring adults and young people directly with science and technology, and their implications.
National Science & Engineering Week (NSEW) is a ten-day national programme of the sciences, engineering and technology events and activities across the UK aimed at people of all ages. NSEW 2012 takes place between 9–18 March.
National Science & Engineering Week is funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and works in partnership with Engineering UK.
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