Swiss EMPA: Personalised medicine – The simulated patient

By guest author Andrea Six from Swiss Empa

Digital twins enable customised medical therapies. Empa researchers have now modelled several hundred such avatars based on real people and treated them experimentally. For the first time, the digital twins received feedback from real patients.

The enormous advances in modern medicine allow us to provide patients with an improved quality of life even during severe illnesses. Synthetic opiates, for example, can be used to control severe pain caused by cancer. However, the exact dosage is still a challenge. Painkillers, such as fentanyl, must be administered precisely to be effective without harming patients with sometimes life-threatening side effects. Currently, such painkillers are administered through the skin by means of a drug patch, among other methods – a gentle method that helps enable patients to return to their daily lives. However, the appropriate dosage can only be determined by trial-and-error. Reactions to an under- or overdose are only seen in retrospect, when the medication has long since left the drug patch.

This is now set to change: To ensure that the correct drug dosage can be determined and kept constant for each individual patient in the sense of personalized medicine, Empa researchers, together with a team from the University of Bern, are using computer and data sciences. The team led by Thijs Defraeye from Empa’s “Biomimetic Membranes and Textiles” lab in St. Gallen is using multiphysics modeling to develop a digital twin of the human body that allows to control and predict the course of therapy.

Already 100s of avatars treated

Digitalisation against food waste

Digitisation can enable major advances not only in medicine, but also in other areas – such as food technology. Just recently, the Empa team led by Thijs Defraeye was awarded a prize in’s Inclusive Growth and Recovery Challenge. The highly endowed award is sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth. The goal of the joint project with the BASE Foundation (Basel Agency for Sustainable Energy) is to use computer models and mobile apps to promote sustainable agriculture and improve the ecological and economic situation for small farms in developing countries. Data processing and the modeling of parameters from agriculture, technology and current economic conditions are key to enable small farms to manage their products with foresight in real time. This is because currently, up to 60% of such farms’ harvests have to be disposed of in developing countries, as fruits and vegetables spoil before they reach the market due to lack of access to cold chains. The researchers want to counter this immense food waste. “At the end of this technology development, there should be an app for cell phones that supports the sustainable use of resources during storage, refrigeration and sale of the goods,” says Empa researcher Seraina Schudel. The large-scale project also provides Empa researchers with an excellent basis for further developing the field of computer and data sciences, and digital twins in particular, for numerous applications.