Researchers make case for continuation of innovative virtual patient project
A pilot EU project that could revolutionise medical care was presented to policymakers and researchers at a hearing on Tuesday 20 September in the European Parliament (EP).
Based on the principle that medical treatment could be enhanced if it were based on individual needs, the ITFoM ('IT [information technology] future of medicine') project aims to develop a massive network of computer programmes that could make predictions on disease and therapies and how various side effects would react with individuals bodies. The project could lead to the creation of personalised 'virtual patients'.
Amidst an ageing population contributing to rising healthcare costs and with both cancer and diabetes on the rise, the need for systems that could give patients more individualised treatment has never been greater. What works for one person might not always be best for another, and many treatments actually make patients more ill, putting a further burden on health systems.
A model-based approach would allow doctors to simulate treatments on the virtual versions of specific patients before trying them out for real.
ITFoM coordinator Hans Lehrach from the Max Plank Institute for Molecular Genetics in Germany said: 'If we design a car we run enormous numbers of virtual crash tests and in physics we let galaxies collapse on computer screens, so there is no reason why we can't use the same approach in medicine. A virtual patient can be aged 10 years to test how a preventative medicine strategy would work.'
However the project's future remains uncertain. As part of the FET (Future and Emerging Technologies) Flagship Initiative Preparatory Actions programme under the 'Information and communication technologies [ICT]' Theme of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), it is one of six pilot projects competing to win a funding extension beyond 2013 when FP7 comes to an end.
Only two of the six projects will be awarded funding from the European Commission under the Horizon 2020 programme and the Member States.
All 6 pilots have been awarded EUR 1.5 million for the duration of the 1-year trial period. All six projects build on recent innovations in the ICT sector.
The ITFoM EP hearing was an opportunity for project partners and policymakers from the European Commission to come together and discuss the project and make the case for funding continuation.
Organised by one of the project partners, ISC Intelligence, and chaired by former Member of European Parliament (MEP) Avril Doyle who stressed the importance of returning to 'evidence-based policy making', the hearing kicked off with an outline of EU Innovation Policy given by Peteris Zilgalvis, Head of Unit for ICT for Health in the Directorate-General for Information Society and Media (DG INFSO).
He talked about how the FET pilot projects fit into the multi-disciplinary approach of the EU 2020 strategy, emphasising the importance of fusing the objectives of the Digital Agenda with other policy areas.
This cross-policy aspect was also highlighted by Professor Hans Westerhoff from another project partner, the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, who said that the ITFoM was 'a revolution for medicine though ICT as well as vice versa.'
He also went on to talk about how despite the enormous amount of money spent on cancer research worldwide the mortally rate has not significantly fallen. 'Although modern biomedical science can generate an unprecedented amount of data - approximately 30 papers are published an hour on cancer research, this information overload leads to very few new drugs and does not lead to a better overall understanding of therapy.'
Professor Hans Westerhoff puts this down to medical research having too narrow a focus. As many diseases involve complex networks and systems rather than just single genes, the ITFoM approach would move away from looking at the individual 'nuts and bolts' of a disease and instead take a network approach.
'In many ways a mechanic knows more about a car than a doctor does when looking at a patient,' commented European Peoples Party (EPP) MEP Sean Kelly, who hosted the event. 'That needs to change.'
Speakers at the event also emphasised the importance of developing the ITFoM out with the parameters of the market and within the bounds of a funded research framework. 'It is about the integration of information and not competition,' said Professor Hans Westerhoff. He warned that if the idea is taken up by the market it could be detrimental to the potential this project has for really affecting change within medical practice.
Another advantage of using virtual patient applications would be that scientists could carry out drug tests on mathematical models of humans rather than on animals. This would be a huge step forward in terms of results accuracy as well as a move away from a controversial drug testing practice.
The project partners on the ITFoM project hail from research institutions in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Additional researchers involved as part of associate partner institutions come from Canada, Estonia, Israel and the United States.
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Data Source Provider: ITFoM
Document Reference: Based on information from ITFoM, ISC Intelligence and information gathered at the EP hearing.
Subject Index: Innovation, Technology Transfer; Education, Training; Life Sciences; Information and communication technology applications ; Social Aspects; Medicine, Health; Scientific Research; Coordination, Cooperation