by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London
Ada Lovelace, the ‘first programmer’ thought the possibilities of computer science might cover a far wider breadth than anyone else of her time. For example, she mused that one day we might be able to create mathematical models of the human nervous system, essentially describing how electrical signals move around the body. University of Oxford’s Blanca Rodriguez is interested in matters of the heart. She’s a bioengineer creating accurate computer models of human organs.
How do you model a heart? Well you first have to create a 3D model of its structure. You start with MRI scans. They give you a series of pictures of slices through the heart. To turn that into a 3D model takes some serious computer science: image processing that works out, from the pictures, what is tissue and what isn’t. Next you do something called mesh generation. That involves breaking up the model into smaller parts. What you get is more than just a picture of the surface of the organ but an accurate model of its internal structure.
So far so good, but it’s still just the structure. The heart is a working, beating thing not just a sculpture. To understand it you need to see how it works. Blanca and her team are interested in simulating the electrical activity in the heart – how electrical pulses move through it. To do this they create models of the way individual cells propagate an electrical system. Once you have this you can combine it with the model of the heart’s structure to give one of how it works. You essentially have a lot of equations. Solving the equations gives a simulation of how electrical signals propagate from cell to cell.
The models Blanca’s team have created are based on a healthy rabbit heart. Now they have it they can simulate it working and see if it corresponds to the results from lab experiments. If it does then that suggests their understanding of how cells work together is correct. When the results don’t match, then that is still good as it gives new questions to research. It would mean something about their initial understanding was wrong, so would drive new work to fix the problem and so the models.
Once the models have been validated in this way – shown it is an accurate description of the way a rabbit’s heart works – they can use them to explore things you just can’t do with experiments – exploring what happens when changes are made to the structure of the virtual heart or how drugs change the way it works, for example. That can lead to new drugs.
They can also use it to explore how the human heart works. For example, early work has looked at the heart’s response to an electric shock. Essentially the heart reboots! That’s why when someone’s heart stops in hospital, the emergency team give it a big electric shock to get it going again. The model predicts in detail what actually happens to the heart when that is done. One of the surprising things is it suggests that how well an electric shock works depends on the particular structure of the person’s heart! That might mean treatment could be more effective if tailored for the person.
Computer modelling is changing the way science is done. It doesn’t replace experiments. Instead clinical work, modelling and experiments combine to give us a much deeper understanding of the way the world, and that includes our own hearts, work.
This article was originally published on the CS4FN website and a copy can be found on p16 of issue 20 of the CS4FN magazine, a free PDF copy of which can be downloaded by clicking the picture or link below, along with all of our free-to-download booklets and magazines.
The charity Cardiac Risk in the Young raises awareness of cardiac electrical rhythm abnormalities and supports testing (electrocardiograms and echocardiograms) for all young people aged 14-35.
This blog is funded through EPSRC grant EP/W033615/1.