KU Leuven: New KU Leuven Institute wants to give a digital boost to healthcare

When we think of biomedical research, we spontaneously think of what happens in the lab ( in vitro ) or of animal research and studies with human participants ( in vivo ). Another, complementary research method based on computer models and simulations ( in silico ) often remains in the shadows. iSi Health, the KU Leuven Institute for Physics-based Modeling for In Silico Health, wants to change that.

Initiators Lennart Scheys, Karl Meerbergen, Ilse Jonkers and Jos Vander Sloten | © KU Leuven – Rob Stevens
“In other technological domains, simulations based on computer models are already much more established. Think of aviation, for example,” says Ilse Jonkers, professor of biomechanics and founder of iSi Health, together with Karl Meerbergen, Lennart Scheys and Jos Vander Sloten. “There is also great potential in health care to improve the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disorders using ‘physics-based’ models. With this new institute we want to help shape this evolution.”

“A lot is already happening at KU Leuven in the field of in silico research. This involves modelling, simulating and visualizing biological and medical processes, from the cellular and molecular level to specific organ systems and disease states. At the moment these activities are still fragmented. With iSi Health, we want to increase the interactions between these researchers and reduce the step towards further clinical implementation.”

Less ‘trial and error’
“ Trial and error still too often plays a major role in current research. With the help of in silico techniques, we can still make a lot of profit there,” says professor Lennart Scheys, director of the orthopedic research and training institute (IORT, KU Leuven/UZ Leuven). “For example, you can virtually compare certain surgical procedures. Think of the placement of an implant and how the patient will function with it. By focusing more on computer models and simulations, you can also limit research with laboratory animals.”

“This also applies to clinical studies that require a lot of time and therefore money, and which also always involve risks for the test subjects. By using in silico models, you can already draw a number of lessons and exclude options for the effective start of the study. For example, in a virtual patient cohort you can test different doses of a certain drug or compare young and old populations. With that information you can then start a more targeted clinical study.”

In the long term, iSi Health wants to work on an ‘in silico clinical trial center’ that identifies and promotes the best research insights and models.

Healthcare of the future
“At the moment, about sixty colleagues from the three science groups showed an interest in iSi Health,” says Professor Jonkers. “We do not limit ourselves to the biomedical and technological aspects of these models. Expertise from human sciences also plays an important role. As an institute, we also want to help prepare the legal and ethical framework of in silico medicine and investigate its economic feasibility. The ultimate goal should be to make healthcare more efficient and improve patient outcomes, preferably at a lower cost.”

“Another priority of iSi Health is training the health professional of the future,” continues Professor Scheys. “That’s why we want to work on new training initiatives that shape doctors to understand and use ‘physics-based’ models and methods. On the other hand, engineers also need to be trained in such a way that they can translate these techniques into the thinking world of the doctor.”

The ultimate goal should be to make healthcare more efficient and improve patient outcomes, preferably at a lower cost.

Ilse Jonkers, director of iSi Health

“As iSi Health, we are convinced that in silico techniques will represent an important innovation in healthcare,” concludes Ilse Jonkers. “This technology will support the doctor of the future to tailor treatment even better to the needs of the individual patient. Thanks in part to the unique symbiosis with UZ Leuven, KU Leuven can play a pioneering role in this evolution, alongside other top universities such as Stanford and Sheffield, and we want to contribute to that as an institute.”

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