A Digital Human Could Advance Medicine

The Virtual Physiological Human (VPH) would encompass all the knowledge we’ve gathered, from genetic interactions to systems biology, into one integrated digital package

Science and medicine have fractured the human body into pieces: the cardiovascular system, the immune system, the endocrine system. Now a European initiative seeks to put the jigsaw puzzle back together by developing a computer model of a complete human being. The Virtual Physiological Human (VPH) would encompass all the knowledge we’ve gathered, from genetic interactions to systems biology, into one integrated digital package.


The Virtual Physiological Human will integrate digital modeling at all  levels—genetic, cellular, tissues, organs, and systems—into one  complete package that will be useful in medicine and research. Courtesy of Serge Van Sint Jan, Université Libre de Bruxelles“If you thought the genome project was big work, this is probably a million times more complicated,” says Marco Viceconti, PhD, scientific officer of the Strategy for The EuroPhysiome (STEP), a coalition of leaders from research, industry, and clinical practice who hope to create the virtual human. “This is not something you will ever finish.”


In recent years other groups have begun digital modeling of various human processes, including two other worldwide projects to assemble our physiome—a complete description of human physiology. To prevent fragmentation, all projects are communicating under an umbrella organization called the World Integrative Research Initiative. They will share technology and computer infrastructure, and will agree on common terminology.


Researchers in the VPH initiative, funded by the European Commission, plan to build the virtual human piecemeal by linking each model as it’s created. A brain aneurysm model is already under way. If clinicians could predict which aneurysms are unlikely to rupture, they might avoid unnecessary brain surgeries. Scientists working on the project (called @neurIST) are gathering genetic and metabolic data from patients with aneurysms, which they will feed into a computer model to develop a predictive algorithm.


Candidates for other initial projects include disease models for diabetes and osteoporosis. The European Commission is running an evaluation process to select projects for funding starting in early 2008.


It may take at least a decade before a complete virtual human exists, but Viceconti hopes some pioneering applications such as the aneurysm model will soon deliver benefits. An early goal is reducing the costs and risks of drug development by first testing drugs on a virtual patient to gauge harmful side effects. Eventually, physicians could use the virtual human for better diagnosis and treatment by programming it with a patient’s specific data, yielding a unique assessment of how certain drugs might affect him or her.


“There’s a very strong focus in the EuroPhysiome on modeling for clinical applications,” says Peter Hunter, PhD, director of the Bioengineering Institute at the University of Auckland and representative of the IUPS Physiome Project, one of the other international physiome initiatives. He sees the EuroPhysiome as complementary to his project.


A strong spirit of international collaboration will help the EuroPhysiome succeed, says Viceconti. “This is definitely a team science exercise."


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