The virtual human: digital avatars that are advancing healthcare

Human bodies are incredibly complex machines; and each is unique. There is no single medication, clinical device or lifestyle that will work for everybody. For this reason, as medical science and technologies advance, so too do clinicians’ abilities to offer their patients ever more personalized advice, treatment and care. Now, using powerful computing, it’s becoming possible to simulate the exact workings of an individual’s biology, from the way their heart beats down to each letter of their DNA code.

This is the essence of the virtual human project, which I’d like to present here. This European Commission funded initiative has an ambitious vision: to create ‘Virtual Humans’ in a way that will become routinely available in hospital settings. By being able to simulate at every scale how a person breathes and moves and how each part of their body functions, the project’s mission is help clinicians to predict the likelihood of injuries or disease and design treatment regimes that are personalized precisely for individual patients.

Personalized precision treatments

Using a patient’s own individual avatar, clinicians and researchers can test the effects of different drugs in order to select the most effective; and clinicians and device manufacturers can visualize how best to deliver a drug exactly where it is most needed.

Simulating a patient’s circulatory system and the movement of red blood cells produces insights into important processes such as those that prevent blood loss after an injury. And with cardiovascular disease accounting for half the sudden deaths in Europe, in future, virtual hearts beating inside supercomputers will reveal the detailed workings of individual patients to better understand the disease and test the effects of different drugs and pacemakers.

CompBioMed consortium

The Virtual Human Project is being developed and delivered by CompBioMed, a consortium led by University College London as part of the European Commission’s H2020 initiative, and it is coordinated by Professor Peter Coveney. It is in the process of establishing a Center of Excellence for simulating the different processes of the human body and making those available to clinicians and organizations across the healthcare and medical science domain.

As a member of the consortium, we help optimize simulation applications using high performance computing (HPC) capabilities to process vast, complex data and edge computing facilities to take that processed data and turn it into real-time visualizations that are accurate and intricate at every scale.

High performance and edge computing

We are for example, currently involved in creating a test bed setting with the HemoCell application1 developed by University of Amsterdam to simulate the transport properties of dense cellular suspensions such as blood. We have already successfully simulated healthy blood flow and are now working on developing simulations of different conditions, unlocking the value of HPC and edge computing by continuing to finetune our parameters.

With multiple applications now underway, the Virtual Human Project really does have the potential to transform medicine. And with parallel versions of humans existing in the virtual world, the project will help to reduce the need for animals in drug testing.

Pre-emptive and preventative medicine

In future, virtual humans will help doctors to plan procedures, such as brain surgery, in order to test different approaches and implants successfully in a digital environment. With a patient’s very own avatar moving exactly as they do, clinicians will be able to calculate the forces and mechanical stresses placed on their bones in order to predict the risk of fracture.

In a supercomputer, many virtual versions of an individual can exist simultaneously so that doctors can model the impacts of small changes in lifestyles and medications on health, ageing and quality of life, and to predict the risk of strokes, for example. In this way, virtual humans will not only assist medical staff to prescribe the best, least-invasive treatments, they will also help clinicians and scientists to predict, pre-empt and prevent illness from even occurring.

1 Závodszky G, van Rooij B, Azizi V, Hoekstra A. Cellular level in-silico modeling of blood rheology with an improved material model for red blood cells. Front Physiol. 2017;8(AUG):563


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About Natalia Jiménez Lozano
Director, Atos HPC, AI & Quantum Life Sciences CoE, Distinguished Expert and member of the Scientific Community
Natalia has a MSc in Biochemistry and PhD in Molecular Biology. Working in life sciences and technology since 2012, following 14 years in bioinformatics research, Natalia’s contributions have already been profound and significant. Having pioneered the development and application of the Precision Medicine model and since seen her vision realised in frontline care, in 2020 she achieved her dream of opening the HPC, AI and Quantum Life Sciences Centre of Excellence in Cambridge. She has been instrumental in starting a new chapter for Atos, partners, and customers to accelerate innovation to improve health outcomes and wellbeing of people worldwide.  

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