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Virtual patients may lead to healthier lives

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A consortium of more than 25 academic institutions and industrial partners with expertise in ICT, the life sciences, public health, and medicine have come together to start a pan-European, 10-year project, called IT Future of Medicine (ITFoM).

It is one of six pilot projects in the European Future and Emerging Technologies flagship scheme, costing €1bn.

A project from the UK's University of Manchester is among those initially approved for ITFoM. Working with several partners, the academics have been awarded funds to create 'virtual patients' – computational models of individual people – which could lead to everyone having their own individually-tailored health system based on their genetic and physiological make-up.

Through genome sequencing and clinical information, the general model will be adapted to suit the particular health demands of an individual, including issues such as allergies, congenital defects and current treatment.

ITFoM will also provide scenarios, such as what would happen if a patient takes a certain medicinal drug or what would happen if they started running three times a week.

An array of ICT developments must take place in order to make this medicine of the future a reality. This will include new techniques for the rapid acquisition and evaluation of patient data, dynamic storage and processing of real time patient data into relevant mathematical models and the development of new systems that can learn, predict and inform.

ITFoM was set up as it was felt that, while IT and computing played a large role in many commercial scientific areas, its potential power to revolutionise medicine has not yet been realised.

Professor Hans Westerhoff, who is leading the Manchester part of the project, believes computer models will fundamentally change the way healthcare is provided: 'ITFoM will make general models of human pathways, tissues, diseases and ultimately of the human as a whole. These models will then be used to identify personalised prevention and therapy schedules, and the side effects of drugs. The models will be there to help diagnose a particular problem and provide solutions. Making personalised medicine a reality will thus require fundamental advances in the computational sciences.'

The six pilot projects in the European Future and Emerging Technologies flagship scheme, are:

  • FuturICT Knowledge Accelerator and Crisis-Relief System: ICT can analyse vast amounts of data and complex situations so as to better predict natural disasters, or manage and respond to man-made disasters that cross national borders or continents.
  • Graphene Science and technology for ICT and beyond: Graphene is a new substance developed by atomic and molecular scale manipulation that could replace silicon as the wonder material of the 21st century.
  • Guardian Angels for a Smarter Life: tiny devices without batteries that act like autonomous personal assistants, and which can sense, compute and communicate potentially even while travelling through your bloodstream.
  • The Human Brain Project: understanding the way in which the human brain works can bring the benefits of brain-related or brain-inspired developments to computing architectures, neuroscience and medicine.
  • IT Future of Medicine: digital technology has the power to deliver individualised medicine, based on molecular, physiological and anatomical data collected from individual patients and processed on the basis of globally integrated medical knowledge.
  • Robot Companions for Citizens: soft skinned and intelligent robots have highly developed perceptive, cognitive and emotional skills, and can help people, radically changing the way humans interact with machines.