By Orla Ni Sheaghdha
James Cameron’s film Avatar may fall into the science fiction category but the idea of virtual bodies existing for people may not be as unrealistic as some might think. Technological advances in the medical world have brought forward the idea of “medical avatars” being used in the treatment of patients in the future. In 2006, the Virtual Physiological Human (VPH) initiative was set up across Europe to investigate the use of ICT in the development of treatment of patients. The project will span over ten years and is currently costing the European Commission about 350 million euro to fund. There are over 20 active VPH projects across Europe, each improving on the recent innovations in the research of biotechnology and medical advances.
The aim of the project is to make diagnosis of varying diseases more all-encompassing. Rather than seeing the human body as a collection of individual organs, the virtual body would allow it to be seen as a single multi-organ system. This “medical avatar” would contain both medical data of the person in question and detailed knowledge about how their bodily systems work. This combining of information would make it easier to diagnose current symptoms, to anticipate any future illness, and to predict the side- effects of any drugs used for treatment. The response of the virtual body to any treatment drugs could be tested before any prescriptions given to the actual patient. This is being researched in the preDICT programme, one of several projects being run by the VPH initiative. The advantages of this particular aspect of the project include a reduced need for animal experimentation when testing new drugs. It also allows for the elimination of any drug-related allergies without incurring risk to the patient themselves.
Other perceived benefits of the VPH initiative include the preventative approach it takes to the treatment of diseases, particularly various forms of cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease. NeoMARK is a project for an ICT enabled prediction of cancer reoccurrence. IMMPACT looks at the use of images in Ablation cancer treatment. PredictAD aims to use patient data to make healthcare in Alzheimer’s Disease more personalised. These are just a few of the innovations being put forward by the VPH initiative and it is yet to be seen what the results will yield.
For now, the pseudo-bodies are still in the test stages but it may not be too long before members of the public will have their own avatar. Scientists and medical experts working on the project are satisfied with the progress of the initiative and it could only be a matter of years before the real world merges with the virtual. One director’s dream is close to realisation.