The Virtual Human Enters Parliament

By Roger Highfield, UCL visiting professor

A VIRTUAL heart will beat in Parliament this week to show MPs and Lords how the most fundamental aspects of living processes and cells are being reproduced by scientists to simulate tissues and organs, one day even help create ‘virtual humans’.

A beating virtual heart will be inspected on Wednesday morning by Parliamentarians in an ‘evidence pod’ as part of Evidence Week, which aims to help politicians make sense of an increasing range of issues amid an explosion of scientific research and data. They hope to use a special tablet loaned by Dassault Systèmes to show a 3D version of the virtual heart in action.

Virtual organs are already having an impact. The National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs), recently gave an award for a computer model of the heart devised by the University of Oxford’s Department of Computer Science, with Janssen Pharmaceutica which predicted the risk that drugs would cause abnormal heart rhythms in patients with 89% accuracy, better than using the results of tests on animals.

Great progress has been made at the University of Sheffield to simulate the muscles and skeleton of a virtual human, so the forces transmitted around the body can be understood in detail, and the researchers can even animate a virtual skeleton to the sound of La Macarena.

‘We will have the Macarena-dancing skeleton looping in the background at the pod and hope to run a raffle to link data on multiple scales together to build a dancing skeleton for a lucky parliamentarian,” said Prof Peter Coveney of University College London and the University of Amsterdam, who leads the European CompBioMed consortium, which has devised the pod with UCL and the Biochemical Society.

His UCL colleague, Prof Andrea Townsend-Nicholson, will be present to explain to Parliamentarians how the virtual human uses digital evidence – from the ‘letters’ in genetic code to medical imaging of the heart – to seek real improvements to healthcare by delivering truly personalised medicine.

Just as a weather forecast relies on a mathematical model of the Earth’s atmosphere, run on a supercomputer using data from meteorological stations, satellites and so on, the team hope to glean mathematical models of the body with an individual person’s data to forecast their health.

‘The Virtual Human will enable personalised drugs to be designed and can also be used to predict the safety of medicines using digital evidence instead of animal experiments,’ said Prof Townsend-Nicholson. The hope is that one day a doctor will be able to study the way diet and treatments work via your digital doppelgänger before they try them out on you.

To knit together heart, musculature, organs and so on into a Virtual Human requires exascale computing power, capable of a billion billion (that is, a quintillion) calculations per second, which is currently being developed in the United States, China and Europe. ‘The power of the supercomputers needed for this does not presently exist within the UK, making international collaboration the only way in which to stay at the leading edge of this technology,’ she said.

Prof Coveney believes that the kind of theory being developed for the Virtual Human Project will help reveal which kinds of patient data are the most useful and how best to make sense of them: spurious correlations are a familiar problem to those who use machine learning to find promising drugs and big data require theory and understanding to interpret them properly, he says.

The number and scale of medical data sets, though growing all the time, still afford us an impoverished view of the complexity of the human body. Bodies are ever-changing, while traditional data sets often only give snapshots of the state of the body at a specific moment.

The CompBioMed consortium is seeking government support to enable data-driven collaborative research projects like the Virtual Human, and that means providing access to facilities whether in the UK and abroad, a science-friendly immigration policy, policies that make it easy to share data across Europe and overseas and support for continuing the UK’s strength in leading EU Horizon 2020 projects through participation in future EU funding frameworks such as EuroHPC, which is the portal for the next generation of supercomputing initiatives.

Evidence Week is an initiative of Sense about Science – the independent charity that promotes the public interest in sound science and evidence – in collaboration with the House of Commons Library, POST (the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology) and the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.