Smart Takes

Virtual patients: from the classroom to the doctor's office

Virtual patients: from the classroom to the doctor's office

Posting in Education

Computerized models of the human body, called 'virtual patients,' are gaining ground in the medical world for education and drug testing. When will doctors test medical treatments on a model of you?

There's nothing like the smell of formaldehyde in the morning. Or at least that's what millions of medical students have been taught out of necessity since the time of Ptolemy so that they could properly dissect their very own human cadavers during gross anatomy courses. But now medical students at New York University School of Medicine wake up to strap on 3-D glasses and dissect virtual human bodies projected on a screen, reports the New York Times, in the latest development in virtual medicine.

This virtual body is the brainchild of the medical visualization firm BioDigital Systems, and the group plans to take their brainchild beyond the classroom: to the doctors office and the web.

“We wanted to use our data visualization to improve knowledge of complex health topics,” Mr. Qualter said. His firm hopes to position the virtual body as the health education equivalent of Google Maps — available as a free, easy-to-use public Web site and in an upgraded, fee-based professional version.

“We want to become a scalable model,” Mr. Qualter said, “a Google Earth for the human body.”

The idea of computerized models of the human body, often called 'virtual patients,' has existed for several decades, and their promise goes beyond education. Many medical researchers and drugmakers hope to develop virtual patients that are complex and accurate enough to test drugs and medical devices before beginning trials in humans. They hope such virtual drug testing will save time and money, and thus bring drugs to market more quickly.

However, there is always the problem of human diversity. One problem that crops up during drug testing is that each person reacts differently to treatment, and thus drug testers would want their virtual patients to replicate that effect. One group at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York has already begun developing diverse virtual patients, such as an obese patient, as the Wall Street Journal reported in December.

These developments are just baby steps towards the ultimate goal: computerized models that represent each individual patient. Combining genomic data with clinical data, collected in hospitals or perhaps on a mobile app, doctors could test treatment regimes specialized to a single patient. And we may be closer than you think. This summer, the European Commission gave 1.5 million (around $1.9 million) in funding to the IT Future of Medicine, a 10-year, collaborative project between 25 academic and industry institutions that aims to build a generalized model of the human body that could be personalized to an individual.

But are we getting ahead of ourselves? The more medical scientists learn about the human body, the more they realize how little we know about its networked complexity and the way a small change can have cascading effects. Whether these models could ever fully imitate and predict the effects of treatments has yet to be seen.

Photo: Patrick J. Lynch/Flickr

Share this

Hannah Waters

Weekend Editor

Weekend Editor Hannah Waters is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She writes a blog on the Scientific American network, and has written for Nature Medicine and The Scientist. She holds Biology and Latin degrees from Carleton College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure