ORLANDO, Fla. — A medical advisor to the U.S. military is urging the government to support the development of modeling technologies in order to create advanced computer simulations of the human body.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was pursuing this technology years ago but abandoned it. A similar lack of interest is seen in the private sector, the advisor said.
But without this technology, the medical industry is stuck in the dark ages, Richard M. Satava said at the annual Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference. “We have no model of the patient,” said Satava, a former DARPA program manager.
He elaborated in an interview with National Defense.
“If General Motors is building a new car, they make tens of thousands of models and run them through virtual-prototype testing and evaluation,” he said.
In medicine, he added, “We don’t have anything like that.”
Satava now works as a professor of surgery at the University of Washington Medical Center and as a senior science advisor at the Army’s Medical Research Command, at Ft. Detrick, Md. From 1992 to 2006, he oversaw DARPA’s advanced biomedical technology unit. There, he spearheaded the now-defunct virtual soldier project, an effort to develop a complete 3D model of the human body. Satava said the project — if it were ever carried out — would revolutionize the field of medicine.
“The only question is how long it’s going to take the health care industry to wake up to the importance of this,” Satava said. “I don’t want to seem like a megalomaniac, but this is on the magnitude of cell phones or the Internet.”
The goal of the virtual soldier project was to create holographic medical representations, or holomers, of patients’ bodies. These would combine CAT scans with complex algorithms to form 3D models that behave, physiologically, like humans.
Doctors would be able to test medicines and practice procedures on the models before administering them to patients. Currently, doctors estimate how much medicine to prescribe a patient and then increase or decrease the dosage based on the results.
At DARPA, Satava planned to prove the theory behind the virtual soldier project — that the human body could be replicated through mathematical algorithms. He believes the program achieved some success. Researchers mapped nearly the complete physiological properties of a pig’s heart, and they developed algorithms that mimicked the heart’s behaviors. They could take a specific pig, enter its vital signs into the program and have a 3D replica that behaved just like that pig’s heart. “It would beat exactly the way the real heart was beating,” Satava said.
The researchers would shoot pigs with shrapnel and then plug their vital signs into the program. They could predict exactly when the pigs’ hearts would stop beating. “We proved that this was a doable thing,” he said.
But DARPA was financially unable to carry the project forward. The military services rejected it as too costly, and private companies — including IBM, Google and Microsoft — decided it would take too long to pay off.
Several companies are working on similar technologies, but at a slow pace, he said. For example, Archimedes Inc. has developed a model that allows researchers to perform drug tests on virtual populations. Its results have been shown to mirror those of actual drug tests on real populations.
“There is research being done on a modest level on the civilian side to make this continue,” Satava said. “My guess is that once it gets to a much higher level of maturity, the Department of Defense may decide to pick it up again and refine it for soldiers.”
He envisions futuristic 3D medical records that soldiers would carry on a chip embedded in their dog tags. A medic could run a wounded soldier’s tag through a scanner and pull up his holomer on a computer. The medic could compare a soldier’s current CAT scan to the holomer, a process that might be able to detect exactly what has changed in the soldier’s body since he was wounded, Satava said. “Until we do this, health care is going to remain impaired, scientifically speaking.”