Biotech company ELEM is doing just that. It built virtual humans—“not made of flesh and bones, but bits and bytes”—powered by supercomputers, which model disease states and, by extension, are “treated” by novel breakthroughs. More recently, its Virtual Heart project has been looking at how certain COVID-19 treatments affect cardiac health.
Is this the future of medicine? And if so, when do we get our own bioidentical virtual human twin who can test personalized cures before we have to pop a pill or take a shot? We spoke with Barcelona-based Christopher Morton, ELEM’s CEO, to find out more.
PCMag: As we’re still under the occupation of COVID-19, it must be dangerous to conduct large-scale human-based medical trials. So I imagine ELEM’s computational avatars, which test medical breakthroughs on disease states, are more necessary than ever?
Christopher Morton: Yes, that’s right. We are constantly in contact with doctors, businesses, and regulators: recruiting candidates and getting them into the clinics to take part in clinical trials was always an issue and, yes, COVID has made it worse. There is only so much risk people are willing to take, I guess. Another associated problem with clinical trials is the selection of candidates and the retention.
Because you have to be brave to submit yourself to a beta, especially when it comes to your health?
Yes, that and also selection is tough because of exclusion criteria. If people have too many comorbidities, it is harder to understand the true impact of a new treatment. And records show that the dropout rate can be as high as 30%.
But virtual humans are ready and willing to step in.
Right. With our Virtual Human trials, we bypass a lot of these issues. Populations can be created ad-hoc and on-demand. There’s also no gender-bias issue. Today, in cardiac trials, drugs, or devices, many products are dominantly tested in male subjects, usually white and slightly overweight, if possible. But evidence shows that more and more women are suffering from heart conditions. I mention cardiac because it is our first application. Do you know that for children, doctors often have to be creative because cardiac devices are made for adults?
And you can’t put an adult-sized human heart stent into a kid’s body.
No, it’s not acceptable in the 21st century. Coming back to our solutions, for us, speed is just a matter of adding computer resources. You may recall a topic in the news at the beginning of the pandemic. Could chloroquine, a drug used to combat malaria, be used to treat COVID patients? A huge aspect of drug development and/or repurposing is safety. There were suspicions that chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine could lead to complications for individuals suffering from heart conditions. Well, one of the consequences of COVID is an acceleration of the heart rate due to respiratory difficulties.
ELEM had the virtual human hearts ready to test chloroquine and other possible interactions?
Yes, within a week, we had created a virtual test and confirmed the risk of cardiac arrest in COVID patients. That is very hard to beat in a real trial scenario. Since then, we have expanded our study and tested close to 200 virtual patients in eight scenarios, combining various treatment combinations and patient states.
Are you also able to let the virtual humans take the place of real-life animals in testing, bringing us into a more humane future?
Definitely. During COVID, one of our clients had planned a series of invivo tests on sheep. They are working on a new type of pacemaker for patients suffering from weak hearts. Despite everything being ready and the animals having reached the size and age required for the tests, lockdown meant they were unable to perform those tests. We offered them an unexpected alternative.
Give us the backstory on ELEM and how you met your co-founders, Mariano Vázquez, Guillaume Houzeaux, and José María Cela.
I studied aeronautical engineering at Imperial College London and was given the opportunity to go to Barcelona on Erasmus. After my graduation and a compulsory military service, I went back to the research center, where I had studied to work in numerical optimization and in computational fluid dynamics. Mariano and Guillaume arrived soon after to do their PhDs. We have been friends ever since.
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