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A virtually human test subject

Soon, scientists will have no need for such things as the "Rabbit Grimace Scale".

After a week in which scientists published the rather upsetting Rabbit Grimace Scale, it’s good to know the Higgs particle is playing a part in the rescue plan. One day, thanks to everybody’s favourite boson, we’ll no longer need to assess how much pain bunnies are feeling.

Not that scientists in Geneva are colliding beams of subatomic particles with fluffy mammals. It’s simply that the data-processing requirements of modern particle physics have driven computing forward so fast, we now have enough processing power to create realistic simulations of human organs and tissues. Beating human hearts, livers that process virtual chemicals, kidneys that excrete simulated urine and myriad other silicon organs will come together and do away with the need to test drugs on animals.

Researchers gathered at University College London this month to hear how the project is progressing. If it can be made to work, there will be all kinds of applications. We will be able to punch a virtual human in the head to see how brain injuries are caused. We can get it drunk by pouring simulated alcohol into its belly and then trace the chemical pathways that lead to liver damage. If we’re feeling particularly heartless, we can give it lung cancer and watch the disease progress in silico.

First, however, we’ll simply test our drugs on it – and that’s not a pipe dream. More than a decade ago, Denis Noble of Oxford University used a computer model of a functioning heart to help the pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-La Roche get a drug to market. In clinical trials, mibefradil caused some patients to get a hiccup in their electrocardiogram signal. When Noble put a virtual version of the drug into his heart model, it, too, created the hiccup. Unlike the doctors running clinical trials, Noble was able to use his computer program to trace the cause of the anomaly, and show that the raw drug posed no danger to the patient.

The aim these days is to go much further, establishing the effects of a drug on the entire system of organs. Such is the promise of this “virtual physiological human” (also known as the digital patient) that the EU has put €72m into getting it up and running. Drug companies are excited.

No doubt so, too, are the military; the idea of the virtual human began with the forces’ desire to test new methods of hurting people, without hurting people. In the mid-1990s, the US marine corps approached the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee asking whether computer simulations of the human body were able to make predictions about the effects of non-lethal weapons. No, the researchers said – but it got them thinking.

On the grid

Scientists on both sides of the Atlantic are now co-operating on the effort to build a virtual human. And central to this effort is the vast computing network set up to help the world’s particle physicists process their results. The LHC Computing Grid came into its own with the hunt for the Higgs at Cern’s Large Hadron Collider, but its high-speed dedicated fibre-optic cables are also helping to create virtual human organs.

The Grid runs at speeds 10,000 times faster than internet traffic. That’s the kind of data-shifting power that makes it possible to watch what happens when you smash a virtual fist into a virtual kidney to see the impact on its virtual cells. Soon the bunnies will be smiling again and we can all get over the trauma of this decade’s most harrowing discovery: that anyone needs a Rabbit Grimace Scale.

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99).

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. His most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special