Dr Vanessa Diaz and the medical researchers at the DISCIPLUS project want to create a future where every person has a twin.
Don’t worry, these ‘twins’ aren’t living, breathing clones, and they most certainly aren’t part of any dystopian organ-harvesting scheme, à la The Island. Rather, the twins are virtual, 3D-modelled versions of medical patients that will exist in hospital databases to aid doctors in treating patients.
As a part of London Technology Week, Diaz spoke at the IBME Digital Health Devices conference held at University College London, discussing how the development of virtual twins could revolutionise healthcare.
Since 2011, Diaz and the DISCIPLUS project have been developing a computer program to create exact digital copies of medical patients. The program uses a form of template called a virtual physiological human (VPH) that is updated to both look like the patient and contain the same genetic makeup.
First, a 3D scanner measures the details of a patient’s physiological data. This information is then integrated into the VPH program, taking the generic 3D CGI avatar and customising it to the patient, down to the level of DNA. With each hospital visit, the virtual twin would be updated to match your current state of health.
Diaz talked about many medical uses of virtual twins. Now when you are ill or injured, she said, you go to the hospital for a scan, the scan is analysed, and doctors prescribe you a treatment without necessarily knowing how well it will work.
In the future, however, your virtual twin will already be in the hospital database and your twin will be automatically updated when you are scanned. Doctors can then use modelling programs to run tests on the virtual you, discerning the optimal treatment without any trial and error prescriptions.
You will also be able to personalise health devices and map your body’s potential reactions to different diseases using VPH technology. If you are at high risk for a certain disease because of your family history, doctors can model its effects on your virtual twin and discuss prevention and treatments plans with you.
Currently, VPH technology is still in the developmental stage, bringing together computer modelling specialists, scientists, clinicians and people from many other fields to make it a reality. But even once the technology is fine-tuned, integrating it into the varying healthcare systems of different nations could pose an equally time-consuming dilemma.
Despite the massive undertaking of the DISCIPLUS project, its benefits are promising. One day in the not so distant future, your virtual twin could be predicting your medical treatments, saving time, money and even your life.