Precision medicines are the holy grail of healthcare. Being able to treat patients with diseases like cancer using therapies created specifically for their body is the vision of scientists worldwide working in this field.
And that dream moved a step closer this year after researchers launched a roadmap for developing a digital twin of the immune system at the individual level – a breakthrough that would revolutionise the future of healthcare.
The first step is to produce a generic virtual model using available data but it is at the individual level where the real paradigm shit will happen.
One of the scientists leading this research globally is Tomas Helikar, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln biochemist inspired to work in this field to help his son, a 7-year-old who received a lung transplant as an infant.
“The dream and goal are for it to be used for precision medicine at the level of an individual,” Helikar said. “Importantly, we change over time. Our immune system is programmed, reprogrammed and tweaked over time. It develops from birth and as we get older, it continues developing, often in ways we don’t like. It becomes weaker, we have cancers and our immune system is not keeping up. Our goal is to create digital twins that are not just specific to ourselves, but specific to that point in time – taking into consideration all of our past.”
The article outlining the roadmap to get there was published this year in Nature Digital Medicine and had input from an umbrella group of more than 200 scientists globally.
“More advanced medical digital twins will be essential to making precision medicine a reality,” the article says. “Because the immune system plays an important role in such a wide range of diseases and health conditions, from fighting pathogens to autoimmune disorders, digital twins of the immune system will have especially high impact.”
And though it will take time and huge investment to make this happen, Hellikar insists it can be done.
“I think we have enough data and technological advancements in terms of methods and software tools, that the first draft or first version of the virtual immune system could be built with data that already exists. It may not be personalisable yet, but you could start with it as a working prototype.”
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