Physics prof is building a virtual liver
Stand at the door of Vahid Rezania’s office and you can’t help but notice the huge poster hanging above his desk with the inspirational Einstein quote “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” It’s fitting because this associate professor of physics is using his expertise in how fluids move to reimagine the way lifesaving drugs are tested. His research, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Alberta, involves building a virtual liver that will test chemo drugs on computers instead of people.
Vahid began his research career studying how fluid flows through stars—just about as far away from the human body as you can get.
“In principle, the only thing that really matters is how fluids move; the physics laws are the same whether it’s a liver or a star,” he says. About a decade ago, he began to apply his knowledge about fluid calculations to cancer research.
Getting lifesaving drugs through the body’s ultimate filter
Everything you put in your body eventually ends up in your liver. It’s like a brownish-red, pear-shaped gate that collects everything coming at it and decides what stays and what goes. If you’re a scientist developing a new drug, you not only need to figure out if your drug is going to make it through the gate, you need to know if it’s going to damage the gate in the process.
Chemotherapy drugs are especially hard on the liver, but seeing how much damage a treatment is going to cause involves a lot of guesswork. Right now, no one really knows what a new drug will do to the liver until someone takes it. For a person already traumatized by a cancer diagnosis, dealing with a side effect like liver damage—whether temporary or permanent—seems like a kick in the teeth. That’s why testing drugs before they’re ever swallowed or injected is so important.
From one lobule to more than 100,000
So in collaboration with partners Jack Tuszynski at U of A and Dennis Coombe of Computer Modeling Group Ltd. in Calgary, Vahid set out to build a computerized model of liver lobules—roughly hexagonal groups of about a million liver cells—using a combination of physics laws, formulas, mapping and computer code.
“ This project is the most rewarding thing I could be doing. If we are able to develop a virtual organ that finally works...we will have found a way to pretest drugs on a computer, not on people.” Vahid Rezania
The first step was to model a square, gradually adding more detail and complexity until Vahid had a realistic-looking group of liver cells. Once the first model lobule was ready, he had a student researcher compare the virtual lobule with a snapshot of a real one to see if there were any discrepancies in how it looked and worked. After taking the results and making some adjustments to the code, Vahid now has a digital lobule that is a close match to its real-world role model.
Upsizing that single simulated lobule is the next step—expanding from one lobule to 1,000, then 10,000 and eventually the 100,000 that make up an entire liver. While he’s cloning the computerized lobules, Vahid must also work out a way to digitally copy the way blood flows in and out of the liver. “We need to model the vasculature of the liver—the blood going in and out—and fuse it to the models of the lobule so we have an entire functioning organ.”
He’s made a lot of progress in just two years, but the process is slow and careful. It will likely be another five before he has a virtual liver that functions properly. And while he feels the pressure to make this technology available as soon as possible, he’s also enjoying the process.
“This project is the most rewarding thing I could be doing. If we are able to develop a virtual organ that finally works, it means we will have answered the question why, shown what’s happening, modelled it and developed a deep understanding—and as a result, found a way to pretest drugs on a computer, not on people.”
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