Revolutionizing Medicine with Virtual Patients

Genetic engineering and digital technology concept.

NAVS has long supported the development of in silico (computer) models as alternatives that can reduce and replace the use of animals in science. A recent article in Scientific American looked into how computer models can also replace human subjects to make clinical trials faster and safer.

Over the years, sophisticated models of biological systems have been developed and continue to become more advanced. These systems allow researchers to model occurrences that we already understand and for which data have been collected. The systems also allow for the testing of new scenarios, such as how drugs and treatments may work in humans. For instance, researchers can use in silico models to quickly and cheaply test drugs and therapies for their potential safety and efficacy, thereby reducing the number of human subjects required for testing.

With respect to the coronavirus, had “virtual people” been used instead of real people during some parts of the vaccine trials, researchers believe that the pandemic might have slowed down, as the development of preventive tools could have possibly sped up. Such virtual experiments could have also predicted which vaccines were most likely to be successful in people and might have reduced the overall cost of clinical trials by eliminating the testing of vaccine candidates that were not likely to work in humans.

In the United States, some in silico clinical trials are already underway. For instance, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has published guidelines for designing drug and device trials that include virtual patients, and the agency is using computer models in place of human trials for the evaluation of new mammography systems.

What is standing in the way of more widespread use of in silico models in medical research and treatment? More needs to be done to ensure that the computer models are predictive and reliable for our diverse population. High-quality medical databases, with information from a diverse set of people, need to be generated. The models will also need to be refined to account for the complexity of interacting processes in the human body. Further, regulatory agencies will have to approve of the use of these tools—and it can be expensive and time consuming to meet these regulatory demands. There are challenges, to be sure. But the potential rewards look to be well worth the effort.

We look forward to the ways that in silico models will improve the lives of both humans and animals and will keep you posted on further developments.

Help NAVS continue supporting smarter science—including the development of human-relevant in silico tools that can save human and animal lives—by making a donation today.