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Virtual You: How Digital Twins Will Transform Medicine

At a special Lates event, the public heard how digital twins of patients will help usher in a new era of personalised and predictive medicine.

Say hello to your digital twin, a virtual version of yourself that could help make medicine truly predictive and tailored to you and your needs alone.

A launch event at Lates this week explored the potential of digital Doppelgängers of patients to mark the publication of a new book ‘Virtual You: How Building Your Digital Twin Will Revolutionize Medicine and Change Your Life’.

The book is the third by Science Museum Science Director Roger Highfield with Professor Peter Coveney of University College London and the CompBioMed consortium, who has created a digital twin of the circulation of a person and is preparing to extend his work in Frontier, the most powerful supercomputer on the planet, capable of a billion billion operations per second (known as an exascale computer).

Just as a weather forecast relies on a mathematical model of the Earth’s atmosphere, running on a supercomputer using data from meteorological stations, satellites and other instruments, Coveney and Highfield argue that one day mathematical models of a patient will be constantly updated with information from the body and run on computers to produce ‘healthcasts’ to help hone treatments and lifestyle that work best for that patient alone.

This may sound futuristic but, as Prof Coveney pointed out, computer modelling and predictions were critical for the efforts to work out the most effective way to curb the spread of the pandemic. ‘This use of computer modelling was unprecedented,’ he said.

Chaired by the broadcaster Samira Ahmed, Roger and Peter were joined in the Science Museum IMAX by a panel of experts working at the frontiers of this new simulation science and their discussions ranged from the limitations of AI to virtual drug trials, the use of digital twins by regulators, and efforts to ensure the technology is reliable, fair and inclusive:

  • Professor Andrea Townsend-Nicholson—Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at University College London, talked about the importance of public engagement and education.
  • Professor Blanca Rodriguez—Professor of Computational Medicine at the University of Oxford and Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow in Basic Biomedical Sciences, discussed how digital twins have the potential to be more reliable than animal trials.
  • Dr Jazmin Aguado-Sierra—Ramón y Cajal Fellow at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center, described how digital twin heart research enabled her to study why people respond differently to treatments, revealing how male and female hearts are different, the impact of different hormones, and how the heart changes orientation with age.

Watch a recording of the talk:

The audience heard how one day in the coming decades it will be possible to conduct a trial on a digital copy of you rather than, as is currently the case, infer your possible fate and potential treatments based on the basis of previous trials on other people who bear a passing resemblance to you.

Indeed, within a supercomputer, many virtual versions of you can simultaneously explore your many possible futures, depending on your diet, medication, lifestyle and environment. With enough computational power, life can be sped up to chart the long-term effects of a novel drug on ageing, quality of life and even time of death.

The event also featured the launch of a new film, created by the Barcelona Supercomputing Centre, showing the potential of digital twins in fighting the next pandemic to complement the museum’s COVID vaccine exhibition, Injecting Hope.

From providing insights into the spread of the virus through the air, to the effectiveness of masks, or simulations revealing key insights for antiviral drug development, supercomputers can help us deal with pandemics. As has already been shown with COVID-19, supercomputer simulations offer a way to predict what will happen in the wake of vaccination, treatments or public health campaigns.

Virtual You: How Building Your Digital Twin Will Revolutionize Medicine and Change Your Life‘ by Peter Coveney and Roger Highfield was published by Princeton University Press on March 28.