The Foundation spoke to Merryn Tawhai, who is Deputy Director of the Auckland Bioengineering Institute, and Kelly Burrowes, who is an Associate Professor at the Institute about their research, which involves using computer models of lungs to personalise medicine.
Their research fits into a much larger vision around creating a digital twin to be used to improve healthcare. A digital twin is a virtual replica or model of a system, in this case a patient. The idea is that this digital twin or model can be used to simulate the effects of a given intervention or medical treatment on the virtual version of ourselves.
Models of the lungs are a very useful tool in research as they help us to understand how the respiratory system works in a person with healthy lungs and what is happening in the lungs of a person with a respiratory condition.
Merryn and Kelly are particularly interested in using models to separate patients; even though two people may have the same lung disease, the way the disease affects their lungs can be different. Their age, sex, lifestyle and genetics will all play a part in determining how their condition behaves and progresses. Medicine is not one size fits all and one type of medication may work for patient A, but not patient B. Models can be used to help doctors decide who might benefit from certain treatments and how these treatments might affect the lungs of a particular patient.
Using models to implement personalised care can improve patient outcomes and reduce the number of treatments a person has to trial before finding the one that works. One application where the models are being tested is to predict outcomes for lung cancer patients being treated with radiation therapy. As well as killing cancer cells, radiation therapy can damage surrounding healthy tissue and it’s important to have a good idea of how each patient will respond.
When new drugs are developed for a certain condition or disease, they are expensive, especially clinical trials to test on people. Countries need to decide whether it is worth funding these drugs: they need to know how many people would benefit from a drug and how the drug would improve their health. Models can help to provide evidence that a specific population of patients are most likely to get a significant benefit from certain treatments. Models are even starting to be used in clinical trials to reduce the number of people needed, ideally making drug development more affordable.
The institute is also using models to investigate the effect that vaping has on lung health. Kelly and her team took pictures of the lungs of healthy volunteers before and after they vaped. These images are being used to create models and simulate where particles from inhaled vapour will go in the lungs and how the cells in the lungs will be affected. Their aim is to use these models to understand how vaping will affect lungs as a whole.
Thanks to Merryn and Kelly for speaking to ARFNZ about their research.
Katie Lowles is mid-way through her immunology PhD at The University of Manchester. She has spent three months interning at the Asthma and Respiratory Foundation as part of her doctorate programme. In this article she explains her research.