Niall McMahon

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Quiet Revolutions

2006-05-29

Niall McMahon

I LIKED Tom Paterson's quip that "[if] Boeing developed aircraft the way the pharmaceutical industry develops drugs, they would develop ten very different aircraft, fly them, and the one that stayed in the air would be the one they would sell." Tom Paterson is one of the co-founders of Entelos ("Virtual Patients, Real Results"). The San Francisco based company was earlier this year awarded a patent entitled A Method and Apparatus for Conducting Linked Simulation Operations Utilizing a Computer-Based System Model (reported by Simblog back in January).

With customers including Organon and Johnson & Johnson and collaborations with MIT, Entelos is being taken seriously. Seriously enough for both Pfizer and Hewlett-Packard to have small shareholdings and for a recent flotation on London Stock Exchange's AIM market.

There are many other companies too, most of them founded between 1999 and 2001, a strong indicator of the spirit of the times. This is happening now because of (1) a convergence of understanding and computing capability, (2) the need to reduce costs, and (3) a slowly growing acceptance of the interdisciplinary nature of pharmaceutics by pharmacists and biologists. Andrew Branca of the Cambridge Healthtech Associates (CHA) think tank summarises the mood when he says that systems biology is the way to go.

Of course building a complete computer simulation of the human body is still an aspiration. The difficulty, however, lies not so much with the complexity of the human system, computers can handle complex problems after all, the difficulty is that we do not understand the body well enough to describe mathematical and computational models.

There is hope. Describing a mathematical model of an airplane was impossible a hundred years ago when the workings of flight were unknown and boundary-layer theory was in its infancy. Airplanes existed though, and flew. During the 1960s, when the technical understanding of flight and computing capability converged, effective simulation became possible.

Our understanding of the body at all levels is improving continuously, from the human genome sequencing project to the Physiome project. IBM's Blue Gene project has as one of its main objectives the application of Blue Gene's computational resources to significant scientific problems and the project has identified protein folding as its first challenge. As research proceeds, the convergence between understanding and technology will allow an increasingly large number of processes to be simulated at all levels of biological organisation. These quiet revolutions will culminate someday in a model of the human body that, for all required purposes, is an in silico human system.

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