UCL Mechanical Engineering’s Dr Vanessa Diaz has co-edited Computational Biomedicine: Modelling the Human Body published by the Oxford University Press. This textbook aims to help chart the future of this new medical discipline. We caught up with her shortly after the book’s launch.
According to the Independent “Computational Biomedicine” is the world’s first textbook dedicated to the direct use of computer simulation in the diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of a disease.” That must be a source of some pride…
How did your involvement in the project come about?
This was a direct consequence of my involvement on the “Virtual Physiological Human Network of Excellence“ project, that I was helping to coordinate. We had to develop educational material and the idea was to make it the best it could be. We spoke to Oxford University Press and they thought it was a very good idea because there was no book on the market covering this.
What was the process like of putting this textbook together?
Really, really hard. First of all, we had to come up with a coherent story for this book. We had to cover so many topics…then we had to find people who were willing to put their time and effort (there are quite a few contributors!) and work to a hard deadline. All this, after going through rounds and rounds of revisions…when I look back I think “this is insane”. Too much work. But we had people helping along the way on the editorial form to help ‘unify’ the text. Something that I was adamant about is that I didn’t want this to look like a collection of articles. The book had to tell a story and it had to be understandable from A to Z.
To what extent do you think these emerging computational techniques are the future of medicine?
To the extent that I think medicine will undergo a radical change within the next 25 years and that is because of the emergence of what we call ‘personalised medicine’. We will use computational tools and techniques to create a virtual ‘you’ (or what’s inside you) and to design and tailor treatments specifically for each one of us.
How long do you think it will be before these new methodologies will be impacting ordinary patients?
I think these techniques are already impacting the life of patients. Imaging is a case in point in which their use is so clear that they have become common place. Medical devices is another case in point, I think we’ll see in a few years more and more computers used to guide surgery. For example, we are currently collaborating with some surgeons in UCH to try to understand how they should operate and what kind of stent to use when they do so. Moving even further, this idea of the ‘virtual you’ is that we are trying to move from ‘evidence based’ medicine to ‘explanation based’ medicine. We are trying to establish ‘functional relationships’ within you, to try to discover the cause-effect relationships between your unique biology and how your health is doing. That requires a huge amount of a) thinking b) work c) data!
What’s your own research focus at the moment?
The focus of our group is in personalised, “multi scale” modelling within the cardiovascular field. In lay terms, that means that we try to produce these computers models of yourself in the vein of the ‘virtual you’ and to combine engineering tools with biology to capture these cause-effect relationships at different biological levels and time points. Basically, we try to represent ‘you’ formulating hypotheses based on biological knowledge and then we use maths and engineering tools to capture that and solving the gigantic puzzle that we end up with.
In terms of applications, we have two main ones: on one hand, we are interested in applying our techniques to understand atherosclerosis and its many clinical manifestations (stroke, myocardial infarction, peripheral arterial disease, vascular dementia etc.) If anyone is interested in speaking to me, please feel free to do so! On the other hand, we are interested in aortic problems and this is more of a surgical angle, about why some patients suffer from some aortic diseases (aortic dissections, aneurysms), how to guide clinical interventions and the management of the patient. Again, get in touch if you want to collaborate (shameless plug here!)
For a lay person computational biomedicine sounds far from their idea of engineering in general and mechanical engineering in particular. How are the fields related?
We are trying to unravel the mechanisms of disease by using mathematics and engineering tools. The whole concept of ‘personalised medicine’ relies on the fact that we want to a) understand what is going by b) using computational tools to c) design a better treatment for each patient in order to d) manage their health. This is a very ‘engineery’ approach, don’t you think?
In the case of my specific research area, cardiovascular research, well, if you think of your heart as the most important pump that ever existed and your arteries and veins as the pipeline that will keep you alive by feeding your organs all that they need for you to survive…then I think you see how this is engineering at its finest!
What are your and your co-editors hopes for the textbook?
That the students and young researchers that will read it think it is useful. What else can we ask for?