Personalised computer models predicting how diseases will affect individual patients according to their lifestyle, medical condition and physical make-up could revolutionise the future of healthcare.
Clinicians and scientists from Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Sheffield are at the forefront of the development of the ‘virtual physiological human’ – where over 80 academics and clinicians are working together, alongside partners throughout Europe, to recreate the entire human body using powerful computers.
Once the system is built, doctors and clinicians will for the first time be able to see how all the different parts of the body work and react together, from the smallest molecules to the largest organs. They will also be able to see changes in the body over time from nanoseconds to years. The technology, finally possible because of the enormous growth in the power and storage capacity of computers, has the potential to be one of the biggest breakthroughs in medicine living memory.
It will also play a pivotal role in addressing some of the major health challenges facing the UK and Europe today, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease and osteoporosis.
Researchers from Sheffield’s INSIGNEO Institute for in silico Medicine, which includes both clinicians from Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and academics from the University of Sheffield, say the technology could begin to reach the clinic in five to ten years’ time.
Professor Marco Viceconti, INSIGNEO Institute for in silico Medicine scientific director, said: 'For centuries our understanding of the human body in general has been aided by the labelling of different parts of the anatomy, which has enabled us to look at how individual organs and systems work in detail.
'Now, by creating digital replicas of each patient’s body, we will be able to individualise care for every single patient so that treatment is based around their own physiology, lifestyle and genetic make-up. Not only will the virtual physiological human give us a better understanding of how life works, it will enable doctors and clinicians to look at the whole body as one entity again, focusing on treating the patient rather than developing specific cures for specific diseases.'
Sir Andrew Cash, chief executive of Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: 'We’re delighted to be working in partnership with the University of Sheffield to build virtual reproductions of the human body. This complex technology will, for the first time, allow doctors and clinicians to see exactly how different diseases and treatments will directly affect each patient, based on their own personal circumstances and genetic make-up. As a result, we will have the data and knowledge that will enable patients to see into their futures – to understand what will happen if they keep following a particular lifestyle, or decide not to take a certain drug, or have a certain operation. Ultimately, it will have the power to prevent diseases, improve health and reduce the healthcare challenges of an increasingly elderly population.'
Examples of the scenarios doctors will be able to predict through the technology include the changes in a patient’s heart in five years’ time if they don’t treat their blood pressure, or how likely they will be to break bones later in life because of existing damage, lifestyle and family history.