$15 million boost helps bioengineers take research into clinical practice

The Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI) has been awarded $15 million to lead an international collaboration that aims to translate years of clinical research on the mathematical modelling of human physiology.

ABI Director, Distinguished Professor Peter Hunter (back) discusses their model of the rat heart with software developers Dr Alan Garny (middle) and Dr Nazanin Ebrahimi (front).

Funding for the 12 Labours project been awarded through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s (MBIE’s) Catalyst Strategic Fund, and is one of the largest research grants that MBIE has awarded the University.

The project is named in reference to the 12 labours of Hercules, the tasks Heracles had to complete to be granted immortality, and also the 12 organ systems of the human body.

The ABI is engaged in a wide range of clinically oriented projects that include the mathematical modelling of the cardiovascular, respiratory, gastrointestinal, lymphatic and musculoskeletal systems, as well as the brain, the placenta, women’s pelvic floor muscles and more.

The funding is a timely recognition of the ABI’s history and impact, the Institute co-founded at the University of Auckland by Professors Peter Hunter and Bruce Smaill 20 years ago this year.

The 12 Labours project will draw together and accelerate research built for the Physiome Project, the Project led by the ABI under the auspices of the international Union of Physiological Sciences, to which dozens of institutions around the world have contributed.

The overall goal of the Physiome Project is to build an online computational modelling framework that integrates mathematical understanding of human biology at every level, linking genes, proteins, cells, organs and organ systems. It aims to develop a complete virtual physiological human, ultimately allowing for patient-specific diagnosis and treatment.

This is about trying to bring engineering disciplines and physics, together with physiology, into the interpretation of the human biological system. Sure, the biological system is complex, but so is an airbus.

Professor Peter Hunter Director, Auckland Bioengineering Institute

We need to take a more mathematical and quantitative approach to healthcare, says Dr Hunter.

“A lot of medical strategies completely ignore physics,” he says. “Yet complex structures like human physiology can be described mathematically, and can be analysed mathematically, using a biophysically based understanding of human physiology.”

Accurate diagnosis of a medical condition often needs data from medical images, physiological tests, blood biomarkers and genetic tests. Linking those together requires quantitative tools based on multi-scale physiological models.” The 12 Labours Project will draw on 20 years of research done at the ABI using clinical imaging and other forms of diagnostic data, including data collected from a new generation of implantable and wearable medical devices, some pioneered by the ABI, for both diagnostic sensing and therapeutic intervention.

The project involves three technology platforms and three ‘exemplar projects’, to demonstrate the healthcare applications of their multiscale mathematical modelling.

This includes a focus on pulmonary hypertension (cardiovascular and respiratory systems), upper limb rehabilitation (research on the neuro-musculoskeletal system) and research into the control of organ function by the autonomic nervous system (maternal health and digestive function). 

Once established, the researchers will be able to use the Technology Platforms developed in 12 Labours to implement diagnostic and therapeutic strategies for a number of other organ systems and clinical procedures.

Professor Merryn Tawhai, Deputy Director of ABI, using computational modelling for improved diagnosis and monitoring of pulmonary disease.

These exemplar projects draw on basic research programmes the ABI has carried out in collaboration with local and international partners over many years, funded by the Health Research Council (HRC), the Marsden Fund, the Heart Foundation, the Auckland Medical Research Fund (AMRF), and other national funding agencies, and international grants from organisations such as the Wellcome Trust, the European Commission, and the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). This research is often in collaboration with colleagues in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences (FMHS) at the University and often with the direct involvement of health practitioners from District Health Boards (DHBs).

The 12 Labours project ultimately aims to develop a framework to apply the maths in clinical practice – in assessment, diagnosis and treatment - in a way that will allow for a more patient-centric assessment of health status than is currently possible, says Dr Hunter.

“It’s about enabling clinicians to make more rational decisions, introducing the power of predictive modelling, and all the knowledge of physiological function that we have encapsulated in our models over 20 years.”

Creating an integrated physiological and monitoring framework and introducing it into clinical practice is a ‘grand challenge’ requiring significant international collaboration. It is also one which the ABI is well-placed to lead having pioneered multiscale computational physiology through its leadership of the Physiome Project, having collaborated with clinical scientists over many years in a very wide range of clinical imaging projects, and developed substantial capability in biomedical instrumentation including in implantable and wearable device technologies.

To emphasise the importance of applying a bioengineering understanding of human physiology in clinical practice, Professor Hunter compares the human body to an aeroplane.

“We get on an aeroplane, knowing that the chance of a crash is tiny, because we trust the engineering processes behind it, scrutinising the plane, maintaining the engine, correcting things before they go wrong, making sure we are kept safe. Why should we not demand that for our own bodies? The problem is that medicine has largely ignored 100 years of advances in engineering physics.

“So this is about trying to bring engineering disciplines and physics, together with physiology, into the interpretation of the human biological system. Sure, the biological system is complex, but so is an Airbus.”

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