Computer simulation could become 'integral' in the diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of disease by the end of the century

The life-saving, real-time techniques are close, but each NHS scandal is a setback for virtual medicine

A patient is rushed to hospital after suffering a severe stroke. Immediate action is needed to return blood to the affected part of their brain; without this they may suffer brain damage or die. Poised to begin surgery, doctors are warned by real-time computer simulations that show how the blood is flowing around the patient's brain that the consequences of their actions could be dire. Equipped with this information, they change course, and the patient survives.

Such a scenario, where computers are relied upon to make calculations that even the best brain surgeon could not, sounds fantastical. But this is exactly the sort of medical advance the authors of a groundbreaking new book, due to be launched tomorrow, argue is within touching distance.

Computational Biomedicine: Modelling the Human Body is the world's first textbook dedicated to the direct use of computer simulation in the diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of a disease. It claims that such technology will be "integral" to the way clinical decisions are made in the UK's operating theatres by the end of this century.

Arguing that medicine is "on the verge of a radical transformation driven by the inexorably increasing power of information technology", it predicts that drugs will soon be selected on the basis of an individual patient's "digital profile", so treatments can be tailor-made to suit them.

One of the book's authors is Professor Peter Coveney, director of the University College London Centre for Computational Science. He argues that the very fact of its publication proves the discipline has moved beyond theory and should be embraced by doctors, some of whom remain sceptical. "There's something very significant that's going on," he said. "It's no longer just a research activity, it's getting to the stage where one can write a textbook and say 'this is the way things work in this field' without being overly detailed and niche."

Recent advances in computer-simulated medicine were discussed last month at a conference at the University of Sheffield, where the Insigneo Institute was founded a year ago. It comprises 123 academics and clinicians working towards a grand European Commission-backed project known as the Virtual Physiological Human: a computerised replica of the human body that will allow the virtual testing of treatments on patients based on their own specific needs.

A supercomputer that can make more than one million billion calculations a second A supercomputer that can make more than one million billion calculations a second (Rex)

Professor Coveney describes this as "the equivalent for the human body of Google Earth". "You could have your own personalised body map … and you could be in charge of managing that and interrogating it yourself," he said.

The creation of an entire virtual human is still many years away. But scientists have already managed to use images of a patient's heart to build virtual arteries, with which they can accurately predict the effectiveness of an operation, such as the insertion of a stent, used to treat heart disease.

"It's not all going to happen overnight, it's going to be incremental. But you should be able to build it up [so] that there are useful components of it along the way," Professor Coveney said of the virtual human project. "As soon as you start digitising, there are applications – it's not just all or nothing."

But there is a problem with computerised medicine: to work properly, it needs patient data, and lots of it. Public trust in this area has been damaged by the troubled history of NHS data projects, the most recent being the botched rollout of the Care.data programme, which has been repeatedly delayed.

Every NHS data scandal that hits the headlines is a major setback for the field of virtual medicine, says Professor Coveney. But he believes that if patients were handed the power to manage their own data, rather than relying on the faceless bosses of their local hospital, they would soon view it as no more sensitive than internet banking.

"You have patients' groups who argue and lobby against data being made available … [but] they are often much more conservative on behalf of the patients than the patients as individuals are," he said. "A lot of patients are very willing to provide their data if you ask them, if there's even a part of a chance that it might help to cure them."

One of Professor Coveney's colleagues is Derek Groen, a postdoctoral researcher whose work concerns modelling the blood flow in a patient's brain. Tapping away on his keyboard at UCL's central London campus, Dr Groen is able to communicate with Archer, the UK's most powerful supercomputer. Based at the University of Edinburgh, it is capable of more than a million billion calculations a second, allowing it to complete the modelling of a patient's blood flow with ease.

Derek Groen, whose work models the flow of blood Derek Groen, whose work models the flow of blood (Susannah Ireland)

The use of supercomputers is vital in this type of work, but not all of them are in the UK. In the future, says Professor Coveney, this could throw up thorny ethical dilemmas. If a computer based in the US makes calculations that result in the death of a patient in the UK, could it be held liable?

Although his PhD was in astrophysics, Dr Groen said he prefers his current work because it could directly benefit people in the short term. "I feel that it's very close to the everyday experience of people and society in general," he said. "I've had people in my family who were affected by strokes – my grandmother, for example, had one at a younger age and another at an older age.

"That's not directly why I'm doing this, but what I do find interesting is... that you get to speak to clinicians and collaborate with them to try and figure things out. For me, that's very motivating."

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
filmDirector said film would 'never have been financed' with ethnic minority actors in key roles
Life and Style
View of champagne glasses at a beach bar set up along the Croisette during the 66th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes on May 17, 2013
food + drink(and for now, there's a clear winner)
News
people
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
Irradiated turkey and freeze dried mash potato will be on the menu this thanksgiving
video
News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
News
Ed Miliband visiting the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The Labour leader has spoken more openly of his heritage recently
newsAttacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But are the barbs more sinister?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Associate Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree are seeking Associate Recruitm...

SThree: Associate Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree are seeking Associate Recruitm...

Citifocus Ltd: ACA - Financial Reporting

£Attractive Package: Citifocus Ltd: Chartered accountant (ACA or CPA), must be...

Langley James : Senior Infrastructure Engineer; VMWare, Windows; Disley; £40k

£40000 per annum + benefits: Langley James : Senior Infrastructure Engineer; V...

Day In a Page

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?