Multidisciplinary networks of physiologists, clinicians, researchers with discipline-specific skills (computational modelling, bioengineering and device technology), industry partners with knowledge of local and international regulatory markets, and commercialisation specialists have co-ordinated across the globe to work towards creating a digital human (the Physiome Project / the Virtual Physiological Human).
With a strong foundation of decades-long HRC funding in basic science, researchers at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI), led by Professor Peter Hunter, are working to create computational models for each organ system. These models will allow clinicians to predict how organs will react to a given event, such as the administration of a drug or in response to surgery. If drugs can first be tested in computer-modelled virtual organs, that are programmed to do everything a real organ will do naturally, the risk to patients and the cost of drug development can be greatly reduced. This has great benefits not just for predicting how a patient will respond to a certain treatment, but also for surgical planning and diagnostic tests.
The Auckland research team were the first in this global project to complete their organ modelling – with a virtual heart – leading them to be recognised as world leaders in computational physiology. ABI researchers continue the Physiome Project work:
- The world-leading research capability represented by the multidisciplinary team at ABI was recognised recently with the US-based National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarding US$4 million to Professor Hunter to contribute to an international programme of research aimed at mapping the autonomic nervous system – how peripheral nerves send out electrical signals to a particular organ. This significant international investment highlights the unique expertise offered by ABI and advanced through HRC support. For foreign (non-US) investigators to gain funding, the NIH requires applicants to offer talent and resources not otherwise readily available in the US.
- The multidisciplinary team at ABI fosters and nurtures the entrepreneurial capacity of their workforce who learn to build companies from the ground up and experience seeing research through the commercialisation cycle. Multiple spin-out companies have been established to commercialise the products and processes developed. FlexiMap, from the team mapping the virtual stomach, offers an innovative system to measure the bioelectrical activity of the gut – the world’s first accurate and reliable solution for quantifying and diagnosing gastric dysrhythmias. The new technology has been patented and is already earning revenue from international clients. In acknowledgement of the leading-edge New Zealand engineering and medical research, Dr Peng Du of the Gastrointestinal Research Group at the ABI was awarded the 2018 Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize.
- The American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) College of Fellows is comprised of the top 2% of medical and biological engineers in the world. ABI’s Professor Merryn Tawhai, Director of New Zealand’s Medical Technologies Centre of Research Excellence (MedTech CoRE) was inducted in 2018 for her outstanding contributions to the development and use of computational models for the virtual lung. Professor Tawhai has pioneered the creation of multi-levelled computational models of the lungs, spanning from individual cells to the entire structure, providing a virtual window into this complex organ.