Testing treatments in a virtual world

Virtual models of human physiology © VPH Institute

The creation of patient-specific computer models of human cells, organs and systems will bring new understanding of disease, support discovery of new drugs and help visualisation of the effects of different choices of treatments.

The University of Sheffield is a core member of the Virtual Physiological Human Network of Excellence – a European initiative, which is itself part of a worldwide community of researchers, engineers, clinicians and industrial partners.

This collective framework enables experts to share their observations and conclusions across multiple scientific disciplines. Success in pursuing their translational research agenda will have a dramatic impact on the future of healthcare, and the pharmaceutical and medical device industries.

A collaboration between the Faculties of Engineering, and Medicine, Dentistry and Health, and the Sheffield Teaching Hospitals (STH) NHS Foundation Trust, the INSIGNEO Institute for in silico Medicine is focusing extensive expertise on the creation of robust, reliable, virtual models of human physiology – the biochemical, bioelectrical and biomechanical systems that drive the functions of the body. These are known as in silico models, in reference to the powerful computers used to create them.

The ultimate aim of biomedical modelling is a 3D 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.

For example, a model of the cardiovascular system will help clinicians predict whether a visible narrowing in a coronary artery is significant enough to cause restriction of the blood supply, and whether the patient would benefit from the insertion of a stent to ease blood flow.

The link between research staff from the University and clinicians from the STH NHS Foundation Trust is crucial to INSIGNEO's success. The collaboration ensures that all developments are clinically relevant and can easily transfer into clinical practice.

The institute also embraces statisticians and applied mathematicians, who are informing study designs and analyses; legal and ethical specialists, who are advising on appropriate use of patient data; and health economists and health technology assessment experts. The involvement of external clinical and industrial partners ensures that the research translates into real-world applications.

Scientific Director Professor Marco Viceconti said, "INSIGNEO is at the heart of the worldwide collaboration to ensure that the finest minds and richest resources are brought together to investigate the human body as a single complex system."