Personalized healthcare, a long-awaited revolution

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Although it’s already 2017 and medicine has made great progress in the last decade, healthcare is often still very generic, following a “one size fits all” approach. To better monitor our health, implanted medical devices and wearables are becoming more commonplace. The collected data can be used to customize treatment and even to simulate a treatment’s effect before it is applied. Thierry Marchal, Global Industry Director Healthcare at ANSYS, gives us some insight in the opportunities of personalized healthcare and the challenges that go along with it.

Thierry Marchal: The specificity of a patient’s body is generally not taken into account while prescribing treatments. For example, a certain drug might work better for one patient than for another, and the necessary dose can vary greatly. If we were able to customize treatments to each specific patient, treatments would be much more efficient and cost-effective.
Headaches, for example, are usually roughly treated with the same drug and dosage for everybody. We currently don’t recognize the specificity of each patient.

Continuous health monitoring

Marchal: Gene sequencing is a very powerful tool; it can reveal whether you are prone to certain diseases, which could greatly assist your doctor’s diagnosis. Today, DNA in a blood sample can be analyzed within a couple of hours. This will be even faster and cheaper in the near future, giving you an immediate update on your health status. With the right technology, blood analysis could be done weekly, detecting cancer in its very early stages and ringing alarm bells when modified DNA is found in the blood. A treatment plan could then be customized and initiated before the cancer reaches a more dangerous state. Also, continuous monitoring of vital parameters (such as your body temperature, cardiac rhythm, and blood glucose level, to mention a few) using tiny sensors will make sure that every unfavorable event can be dealt with quickly. This is especially useful for the elderly; continuous monitoring of their health helps them to live at home, independently, for a longer time.

Tackling technological challenges

Marchal: Of course, continuous health monitoring comes with a lot of technological challenges. For example, the blood samples needed for testing should be very tiny, so that patients almost don’t notice they’ve given a sample. At the same time, it is not realistic to completely cover people with sensors. We need to work with very small sensors, possibly under the skin, which are able to perform very reliable and accurate measurements.
A cold or a flu will be detected so fast that you can get a treatment even before feeling ill.
The data collected by the sensors should immediately be analyzed by software that, in the case of an acute health problem, can automatically decide on the action a patient should take. The batteries of the devices should be very efficient and able to be recharged externally via radiofrequency without increasing the temperature of the local body tissue. It is also of major importance to ensure the cyber safety of these devices. If terrorists could get access to people’s pacemakers, they could kill numerous people remotely.

Cloning your body in a computer

Marchal: Data collected during continuous monitoring could feed the future medical digital twin: a computer-based model of a specific human—this could be any of us—including all the details and specifics of this person’s arteries, bones, organs, etc. This model could be used to find out why you are feeling unwell or to predict a health issue before it occurs. It could also be used to test different treatments and to see which one is best for you. It will take previous health issues into account and will be very reliable. In the future, these kinds of models, together with continuous monitoring of patients, will help people live longer and will prevent most illnesses. Simulations will help predict which drug, which treatment, or which implant will work best for a given person. This will enable us to make healthcare much more personalized than it is now.
I strongly believe that in the future you won’t pay to receive a certain treatment—you’ll pay to become healthy again. If the treatment doesn’t work, you don’t pay.

Simulation for better safety and cheaper trials

Marchal: Using computer simulations, virtual prototypes can be tested in a large population of patients to demonstrate they are safe for patients and properly deliver the treatment. Today, this can already be done for medical devices such as stents, orthopedic implants, inhalers, etc. This dramatically reduces the risk of failure during the product development process and maximizes patient safety. Simulation is also very important in clinical trials. Clinical trials take a lot of time and cost a tremendous amount of money. In pharmaceutical companies, 90% of candidate molecules fail. Developing the full process to do the verification and validation of a computer model is very complex, but it is nevertheless much faster and cheaper than any kind of clinical trial. The US and EU governments are beginning to understand the importance of computer simulation, and it’s very likely that in the near future, in silico trials will be mandatory before any in vivo testing, even on animals, will be authorized. Many large companies have adopted engineering simulation and are using software like ANSYS tools pervasively. Unfortunately, they don’t communicate a lot about it because they see it as a strong competitive advantage. Therefore, I would like to urge SMEs to consider engineering simulation in their R&D. If we manage to align the government and people from different disciplines, such as medicine, engineering, computer modeling, cyber security, etc., true personalized healthcare will become possible and will ensure healthier and longer lives!