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Researcher on virtual patient simulator wins international computing prize

One of the largest international prizes in science, the Royal Society and Académie des Science Microsoft Award, has been awarded to Professor Nicholas Ayache, a research director at INRIA (the French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control), for his work in computational medical image analysis. The €250,000 Microsoft-sponsored award will fund Ayache's research into allowing clinicians to develop a 'virtual patient' – a personalised, 3D computer-generated model of a patient's organs and pathologies sufficiently realistic to make a diagnosis and simulate treatment options.

'The medical objective is to make the virtual patient model realistic enough to increase the potential for early diagnosis and also to plan and simulate several therapeutic strategies to select the most efficient one,' said Ayache. 'This prize will give me and my research team the possibility to improve some of our key models in terms of realism and speed, in particular for the simulation of certain brain tumours and cardiac diseases.'

Ayache is the founder of the ASCLEPIOS (Analysis and Simulation of Biomedical Images) project team, which focuses on developing computational models of anatomy and physiology to help interpret images and to assist in prevention, diagnosis and therapy of diseases.

The 'virtual patient' is created by applying mathematical and algorithmic models to medical images of the patient. These models can be adjusted to the images to determine the actual parameters of a given patient and then used to simulate several therapy protocols for the clinician to consider.

'Medical images are more and more often in 3D, and even in 4D when a temporal dimension is involved, for a dynamic organ like the heart, for instance. These images convey so much information that an optimal exploitation is impossible without the help of computing technologies,' commented Ayache. 'The computing tools developed by our team and the research community in medical image analysis during the past decade, are progressively transferred through clinical and industrial partners in the hospital to help the physicians with a more quantitative, objective and accurate exploitation of medical images.'

The image analysis tools that Ayache and his research team have already developed include: the quantitative evolution of lesions in a time series of MR images of multiple sclerosis patients, (with the Harvard Medical School, Boston and Nice hospitals); image-guided neurosurgery for Parkinson patients, (working with the Pitié-Salpetriere Hospital in Paris); and simulation of minimally invasive digestive surgery (with IRCAD hospital in Strasbourg).

Ayache's team is working on the development of generic libraries of software tools that can be distributed at a larger scale to research groups, both in the academic and clinical world. 'We are currently working with several partners on the development of computational models of some cardiac diseases to simulate various forms of therapy, in particular with St Thomas and Guy's Hospital in London. We are also working on computational models of brain tumours to help quantify the progress of a disease and better plan radiotherapy options.' The latter work is in conjunction with Nice and Paris hospitals and with the Harvard Medical School in Boston.

The Royal Society and Académie des Science Microsoft Award was established to recognise outstanding contributions to science made by European scientists working at the intersection between science and computing. Professor Ayache will receive his award during a ceremony at the Royal Society in London on 20 October 2008.

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