Researcher Will Use £500,000 Grant to Develop ‘Virtual Lung’

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by Vanda Pinto, PhD |

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A Royal Academy of Engineering Research Fellow in the U.K. has been awarded a £500,000 (nearly $700,000) grant to develop a computational model of the lung — a sort of “virtual lung” — that may be a game-changer in the development of new therapies and in the ways of caring for patients with lung diseases.

The new tool will allow for the faster and cheaper development of new medications for the treatment of lung diseases, specifically asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Himanshu Kaul, PhD, the grant awardee, will collaborate with experts from the University of Leicester, in England, to develop a computerized simulation of a human lung by 2024.

“Lung diseases are a major source of socio-economic burden globally,” Kaul said in a university press release.

“My long-term research vision is to create software that will allow clinicians and pharmaceutical companies to predict how well a drug will perform in patients and offer a way to optimize its therapeutic efficacy,” Kaul said.

Although there are some effective treatments for COPD and asthma, many patients have a low quality of life and struggle to keep their disease under control. Furthermore, the healthcare costs related to these conditions can have a significant financial impact both on patients and on society.

However, few new safe and effective therapies have been developed in the last years for lung diseases such as COPD.

Additionally, the development of new medicines is a highly expensive and risky process, as the failure rate is high.

“In a nutshell, more than 90% of drugs fail to reach the market. This is because we lack the capacity to predict the impact of drugs at the systems level, and this comes at a huge cost to pharmaceutical companies,” Kaul said.

One of the reasons for this high cost is the need for rigorous early testing of potential therapies. Thousands of chemicals are produced that need to be tested for efficacy and safety before a medication can be identified and approved.

This need for early testing has sparked an increased interest in the use of computer simulations that can carry out “in silico” clinical trials. In silico refers to experiments performed using computer-based models or simulations.

In theory, a “virtual medication” would be tested on a computer system that mimics the biological processes of a “virtual patient” — in the case of COPD and other lung diseases, this would be a “virtual lung.”

The goal of this research project, called “The Lung Pharmacome,” is to develop a computerized simulation of a patient lung by 2024. By 2025, the team hopes to carry out patient-specific in silico clinical trials.

Researchers believe that this tool could help make more accurate and timely predictions on therapeutic compounds that may offer benefits to specific patient populations. Further, it could also help healthcare professionals tailor treatment plans according to their patients’ individual needs and disease progression, ultimately improving their clinical outcomes.

The Lung Pharmacome project will be conducted by Kaul in collaboration with experts from the University of Leicester’s Schools of Engineering and Mathematics and Department of Respiratory Sciences.

“The University of Leicester was an obvious choice as the institution to carry out this research vision due to its strong clinical expertise, synergy between engineering and healthcare outcomes and a focus on precision medicine,” Kaul said.”Its clinical partners make it an exceptionally strong science complex with research efforts in engineering and biomedical sciences that extend from the molecular to the clinical scale.”