The skeleton of the European Virtual Human is made in Italy

Bologna 24 October 2008In 2007 the European Commission (EC) launched a new initiative on Research called "Virtual Physiological Human" which aims to develop a new generation of medical technologies, capable of generating patient-specific computer models that predict the disease status, its evolution over time, or the best treatment for the particular patient's conditions. The selection was severe: of 300 proposals the EC received only 15 were funded; of them, the only one dealing with the musculo-skeletal apparatus was submitted by the international consortium VPHOP, co-ordinated by the Rizzoli Orthopaedic Institute in Bologna, Italy.


"The VPHOP project", stated Marco Viceconti, co-ordinator of this international initiative, "in the next four years will develop the next generation of technology for diagnosis and treatment of osteoporosis, one of the most serious diseases which may affect the musculo-skeletal apparatus, nowadays."

In 2007 about four million osteoporotic bone fractures costed the European health system more than 30 billion euro. This figure could double by 2050, if we do not improve the current standards of care. (Source: International Osteoporosis Foundation).

"The first generation of computer models is currently entering in clinical use; the main companies in this sector are investing in the instrumentation for the evaluation of bone risk fracture based on technologies that the research laboratories developed in the past years. Meanwhile, VPHOP - the Osteoporotic Virtual Physiological Human - will develop, validate and deploy the next generation of technologies for 100 percent personalised health care."

The 19 public and private organisations that form the VPHOP consortium, such as Philips Healthcare or the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, gathered for the project kick-off at the Rizzoli Orthopaedic Institute last Sept 8th-9th, 2008. Sixty experts in informatics, bio-engineering, medical physics, and medical research met to plan this ambitious project.

"Each of the partner organisations has already a technology prototype that represents the worldwide excellence in that particular domain. The aim of the project is to create, with all these technologies, an integrated solution to be used in the clinical practice and through which it will be possible to gather all available patient information - life-style, physical activity level, neuromotor condition, bone type and shape, status of the diseased tissue, cellular activity, presence of specific molecules - into a unifying computer model capable of predicting on one side the fracture risk with an excellent accuracy, on the other one the effects that the various treatment options will have on that particular patient", stated Marco Viceconti.

VPHOP was also presented at TCN CAE 2008. The TCN CAE International Conference on Simulation Based Engineering and Sciences provides an international forum for researchers, scientists, engineers, managers dedicated to the fields of applied computational science and engineering. The Conference brings together the industrial and scientific worlds of simulation, thus promoting latest advancements in a technology sector that various independent studies regard as indispensable for achieving progress in engineering and science in the 21st century. TCN has traditionally placed greatest emphasis on meeting the expectations of delegates from science and industry, but also to allow for best possible interaction and exchange between the two worlds.

The 2008 issue of the conference saw a growing attention to the so-called "Computer Aided Medicine", a new domain where traditional methods of computer aided engineering (CAE) are revised, adapted, and in some cases drastically revised to accommodate the needs of the biomedical industry and of the many sectors of the clinical practice that are demanding for more quantitative predictions in diagnosis, planning, and treatment. An entire parallel session, chaired by Giorgio Fotia of CRS4, was dedicated to this new important topic.

Marco Viceconti gave a keynote lecture entitled: "The future of CAE in computer aided medicine: the Virtual Physiological Human initiative", whose abstract reads: "The current CAE technology has been developed to solve the problems of a few reference industries (aerospace, automotive). In the last few years, some efforts are being made by leading companies to tackle new markets by developing products that are specialised on the needs of that particular industrial segment. The scope of this presentation is to critically revise the available CAE technologies and to suggest possible directions to make them more effective in the context of computer aided medicine."

"This will be done firstly targeting conventional biomechanics modelling problems such as the design of implantable medical devices, or body-level or organ-level biomechanical modelling. Secondly, we shall describe the new challenges that are emerging from the so-called Virtual Physiological Human (VPH) initiative, with particular reference to multi-scale modelling, and interdisciplinary post-processing. We shall show that while the first group of applications can be addressed by 'evolutionary' tools, obtained by adapting current CAE technology in combination with some domain-specific methods, the VPH research will require 'revolutionary' tools and methods, which in the long run might even bring back innovation to industrial engineering applications."

Dr. Viceconti stressed how current CAE technologies are designed for the traditional applications (automotive, aerospace) and that much adaptation is required to fit the needs in bio-engineering applications. In addition, the scene will be radically changed when the integrative research approach advocated by the Virtual Physiological Human initiative will become mainstream, in a few years from now. The activity the VPHOP consortium plans to undertake in the next four years will be a perfect example of this evolution, and could provide a relevant observatory to CAE companies interested in focusing part of their business on this emerging market.

VPHOP is a Collaborative Integrated Project that is developing simulation-based technology to predict the risk of bone fracture in osteoporosis patients, co-funded by the European Commission as part of the Seventh Framework Programme. The project runs for four years starting from September 2008. Co-ordinated by Rizzoli Orthopaedic Institute, the Project Consortium gathers 19 European Organisations based in Italy, The Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, France, United Kingdom, Sweden, and Iceland.

Rizzoli Orthopaedic Institute is the most famous Italian research hospital for musculo-skeletal diseases. Located in Bologna, Rizzoli is a public institution, funded by the Emilia Romagna region and the Italian Ministry of Welfare. The excellent clinical units, where more than 150.000 patients are treated every year, are well integrated with nine internationally recognised research laboratories. Over 250 researchers trained as engineers, biologists, physicists, and medical doctors conduct strongly interdisciplinary research on musculo-skeletal diseases, with particular attention to the transfer of results to the clinical practice.

Marco Viceconti is the co-ordinator of the VPHOP integrated project, a large European research consortium that is developing simulation-based technology for predicting the risk of bone fracture in osteoporosis patients. Since 1989 he works at the Rizzoli Orthopaedic Institute where he is currently the Technical Director of the Medical Technology Lab. He is also the Director of the BioComputing Competence Centre.

The TCN Consortium was founded by CRF - FIAT Research Centre, CRS4 - Centre for Advanced Studies, Research and Development, EnginSoft SpA, and the Bruno Kessler Foundation. TCN's ultimate ambition is to transfer knowledge and education through state-of-the-art technologies from science to industry. TCN's offer includes a most complex range of training courses related to CAE, Virtual Prototyping and Testing, iDP, as well as disciplines dedicated to statistics, data structure, IT and software engineering in general. It further encompasses tailor-made training, distance learning, minimasters, master courses, and fellowships for young scientists.

EnginSoft is Italy's largest CAE service provider and the local distributor of the ANSYS suite of products. With its 90 expert engineers, 5 offices in Italy and a growing network of partners in Europe, EnginSoft represents an innovative organisation which, since its foundation in 1984, has maintained numerous long-term partnerships with industry, universities and diverse research institutions. EnginSoft also distributes the modeFRONTIER software for multi-objective and multi-disciplinary design optimization. In September 2008, EnginSoft has launched a Training and Recruitment Initiative which offers unique opportunities to University Graduates, PhD students and post docs interested in CAE and VP Virtual Prototyping.

For more information, you can visit the VPHOP project website.

Leslie Versweyveld

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