Imagine your doctor has a digital copy of you stored in his or her computer. Your digital twin is like a volunteer that is always there for you, on which treatment of any disease you may have can be tested. This clone can breathe and walk, but can also break a leg or develop cardiovascular diseases. All of this takes place in the computer. It might sounds futuristic, but researchers around the world, including at the University of Amsterdam, are working to turn this into a reality. A short film about the ‘Virtual Physiological Humans’ project was released this spring.
As early as the 1980s, we had a good understanding of the electrical, chemical and mechanical properties of cardiac muscle cells and had computer models of these cells. Nowadays, complete virtual hearts are beating inside the computer. We also have highly realistic computer models of many other organs, including the skeleton, muscles, lungs, blood vessels, etc.
Developments are taking place at breakneck speed. The first Food and Drug Administration accreditation in 2016 was an important milestone, as it showed that computer models can be useful in the treatment of patients. Powerful computers such as Cartesius, the national supercomputer at SURFsara in Amsterdam, facilitate to compute a virtual heart or a virtual artery down to the last detail. Accordingly, the first complete digital clone is expected to become a reality in the next five to ten years.
In addition to supercomputers, medical scanners are key to developing your digital twin. What began with Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s invention of the microscope, revealing the invisible world of cells and microorganisms, has led to modern-day techniques that create advanced images of organs and processes. In this way, scientists are able not just to build a virtual physiological human being, but to shape it completely in accordance with the specific characteristics of a given individual.
It is expected that this digital copy will contribute significantly to personalised medicine, with fully tailor-made treatments for diseases, rather than treatments based on what is best on average for a large group of patients. Digital twins can also be used for in silico clinical trials, in which computer models test medication. The UvA, for instance, is cooperating with the AMC on an in silico clinical trial for the treatment of acute ischemic stroke. This should lead to faster and more efficient introduction of new medication, as well as a reduction in the use of laboratory animals in medical research.
A worldwide group of universities, hospitals and companies are working on the development of the digital twin, with research groups focusing on smaller parts of the body. Much of this research is taking place as part of the European CompBioMed project, in which researchers of the UvA’s Computational Science Lab are participating. Prof. Alfons Hoekstra is working on virtual arteries and (super)computing techniques that enable simulations. Prof. Peter Sloot is working on models of the immune system, which have applications in such areas as HIV and diabetes. The Computational Science Lab in Amsterdam is also studying the interaction between the digital twin and its environment.
The research consortium CompBioMed has produced a ten-minute film about the development of the virtual human. It was shown at a number of Science film festivals and has been available on YouTube since last month. In related interviews, some of the key researchers, including Prof. Hoekstra, give an update on developments around digital twines and share their expectations of the future.