Story last updated at 1:08 p.m. on Tuesday, July 27, 1999

photo: news

-- Graphic by Matthew Brass

Sci/Tech: Virtually alive --
Scientists plan to program human life

by Larisa Brass
Oak Ridger staff

It's nearly 2000, and we're not zooming around in hovercraft, wearing matching shiny outfits or having conversations with holographic images of our friends.

But scientific advances in computing as well as biology are leading some local researchers to do more than dream about a future where humans can be without being at all.

Say hello to the virtual human.

Flesh and blood turned bits and bytes.

By creating an entire human computer model, health care, drug research, new non-deadly weapons and a host of other treatments and technologies could be tested on the human system without being tested on humans.

It's pretty wild, admits Clay Easterly, a senior researcher in the Life Science Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory who is heading up the venture. But not too wild to start looking at the possibilities and start getting to work.

Here's the idea: to build, from skin and bone to molecular structure, a computerized version of a person.

It could breathe and move and succumb to fatigue and stress and germs. It could be used to test therapies, foods, trauma effects, vaccines -- even clothing and cosmetics.

Eventually, Easterly and others hope, a virtual human reproduction of each person could be created -- complete with what's known about your genetic makeup, your body structure, your sex and ethnic background. Like you, this computer replica would grow and age, and your doctor could use this virtual you to learn how to better manage your care.

The National Institute of Justice, the Department of Justice's research arm for a number of federal agencies, is searching for ways to make non-lethal weapons, says Easterly. In 1997, a group of ORNL researchers went to discuss the idea with staff of the Department of Defense's Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate.

Out of that meeting, Easterly says, came the awareness of the pressing need to model the effects of such weapons on humans without actually using human subjects for testing.

To create a virtual human won't take a lot of brand-new modeling research, he says, just a giant pull to coordinate the modeling work and the exploration into the body's processes now going on at scattered locations throughout the world.

Easterly and his fellow researchers are now putting together a proposal to request funding from the lab director's office to coordinate the first piece of the virtual human. They have chosen the lungs.

He hopes to create a fairly crude version of the virtual human in five years. The model would feature age, sex, body size and type, normal breathing and limited disease information.

Further down the road, as more complex models of the body's various systems and processes become available -- including genetic information provided by the Human Genome Project -- the virtual human would inch closer to the real thing.

The difficult part, he says, is making that happen.

"It's such a big effort that the starting point is elusive," says Easterly. "Our vision is to learn something about integrating models with a small number of fairly simple models. ... The computer does just ones and zeros, and we have to become smart enough to specify how things can link."

Easterly is already beginning to discuss collaborative agreements with the likes of Vanderbilt University, Boston University, East Tennessee State University and visualization companies.

"Our goal is to be a catalyst and stimulate people to think about putting together models, putting together data in ways that are (new), to where we have basically a very elaborate ... assemblage of models and data," he says.

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