NEW TECH: How a ‘bio digital twin’ that helps stop fatal heart attacks could revolutionize medicine

By Byron V. Acohido

Without much fanfare, digital twins have established themselves as key cogs of modern technology.

Related: Leveraging the full potential of data lakes.

A digital twin is a virtual duplicate of a physical entity or a process — created by extrapolating data collected from live settings. Digital twins enable simulations to be run without risking harm to the physical entity; they help inform efficiency gains made in factories and assure the reliability of jet engines, for instance.

As data collection and computer modeling have advanced apace, so have the use-cases for digital twin technology. And as part of this trend, development is now underway to someday bring “biological” digital twins into service.

This is very exciting stuff. It signals the leading edge of digital advances. In our immediate future are digital platforms capable of doing much more than deploying driverless vehicles or enabling joy rides into space. A day is coming when bio digital twins could help to prevent the onset of debilitating diseases and promote wellness.

NTT Research is in the thick of this budding revolution. A division of Japanese telecom giant NTT Group, NTT Research opened its doors in July 2019, assembling the best-and-brightest scientists and researchers to push the edge of the envelope in quantum physics, medical informatics and cryptography.

I had the chance to sit down with Dr. Joe Alexander and Dr. Jon Peterson who are heading up NTT Research’s effort to develop the computational models that would make possible a bio digital twin for the human heart. For a full drill down of our conversation, please give the accompanying podcast a listen. Here are a few key takeaways:

Triangulating heart failure

Jetliner engines today very rarely fail catastrophically. This is because sensors continually gather in-service data which engineers feed into a digital twin. Over the years, computational models have been perfected that allow engineers to triangulate and proactively troubleshoot any hint of engine failure.

NTT Research has set out to achieve something akin to this — with respect to the smooth functioning of the human heart, circulation, and cardiovascular control system. The task at hand is not a small one.

“The cardiovascular control system is much more complicated than a jet engine,” Alexander told me.  “The challenge we’re taking on is going to require more resources and more intelligence than what we’ve put into knowing what we know about how a jet engine operates.”

The human heart was a logical place to begin pursuing a bio digital twin, he says, because cardiovascular diseases are a leading cause of death globally. NTT Research has stepped forward to lead a global collaboration of government and private cardiovascular research organizations on two ambitious fronts.

One is to perfect nano sensors capable of collecting data in real time about how a heart is functioning — at a microfluidics level. This will involve seeding a person’s stem cells with a handful of special cells capable of providing extremely precise input and output readings.

At the same time, major advancements need to be achieved on computer modeling of the human heart and circulatory system; specifically, how the system behaves when something goes wrong – and how it reacts when certain treatments are introduced.

Actually, Peterson told me, we may be able to start with a fairly simple model of the human heart. But even so, there are endless combinations of variables that can contribute to the heart not functioning as it should. This translates into a gargantuan computer modeling puzzle, to say the least.

To begin piecing this puzzle together, NTT Research has set out to build a model that addresses a very specific and important scenario, which is when a physician is treating a person suffering from acute myocardial infarction or acute heart failure.

In this instance, a digital twin of the patient could be used to simulate drug treatments. The researchers’ very specific goal is to design a bio digital twin that would automate the process of determining which drug treatment would be the most effective in an emergency setting.

“We’re just starting out and we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us,” Alexander says. “We should be doing some small proof of concept studies in people, probably at National Cardiovascular Center to start, probably within eight to 10 years.”

A breakthrough platform

It says something that Alexander, as head of NTT Research’s Medical & Health Informatics Lab, recruited Peterson to be the senior scientist leading NTT Research’s bio digital twin project. Peterson is a biomedical engineer whose background is in designing and improving cardiovascular medical devices, both hardware and software.

From an engineering standpoint, Peterson’s mission is to develop a breakthrough alternative to a computational fluid dynamics approach. A biological digital twin that can reliably mitigate acute heart failure would be a platform like no other, designed to keep a pump-and-valve mechanism like no other operating at full tilt.

“The thing that’s most interesting about what we’re doing is that we’re dealing with a relatively simple system, but a very mechanistic system, that must function in the context of an extremely complex physiological system,” Peterson observes. “Having a mechanistic underpinning for what we’re doing, and really an astonishingly simple one, is a very compelling way to move forward.”

Peterson

NTT Research is fully supporting the intensive research and extensive testing needed to achieve the benchmarks for delivering a bio digital twin by the 2030s. Such a prototype would be a giant leap forward, not just for modern medicine, but for technology overall.

It would push high-fidelity artificial intelligence and physiologically-based computational models to the next level. And it would dovetail with major advances in quantum computing and advanced cryptography expected to spin out of the basic research NTT Research has jumped into via its Physics and Informatics Lab and its Cryptography and Information Security Lab — in roughly the same time frame.

Back to the impact on medicine: achieving a bio digital twin to deal with heart failure would open the door to so much more.

Alexander

Says Alexander: “We have very specific targets relating to acute myocardial infarction and acute heart failure. But in the course of addressing those maladies of the heart, we have to invoke the lungs, the pulmonary system, the kidneys and we have to invoke neural control.

“And in order to treat those acute conditions, we need to cover a hospital stay that might be four or five days. So we’re building a model that can cover various time scales up to four or five days . . . then once we finish addressing these acute conditions, we’ll move to chronic conditions and then from chronic conditions, we can move toward wellness.”

Clearly, this technology breakthrough-in-the-making has the potential to be revolutionary. It’s not hard to imagine bio digital twins that can influence other failings of human physiology; they could someday help to eliminate diabetes, autism or Alzheimer’s disease. Of course, we’ll need to make steady progress on data privacy and network security along the way. I’ll keep watch and keep reporting.

Acohido

Pulitzer Prize-winning business journalist Byron V. Acohido is dedicated to fostering public awareness about how to make the Internet as private and secure as it ought to be.


(LW provides consulting services to the vendors we cover.)

 

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