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Robot Heart

Robot Heart

World-renowned New Zealand scientist Peter Hunter is well on the way to transforming healthcare through digital modelling of the human body. Just don’t expect him to get over-excited about it.

By Nikki Mandow
Additional Reporting: Megan Fowlie

If you want to find out about the career of Distinguished Professor Peter Hunter, arguably one of New Zealand’s leading scientists on the global stage but hardly a household name at home, you could do worse than start with an old copy-paper box on the floor of an office on the sixth floor of the University of Auckland’s warren-like Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI).

Inside the box is a mad jumble of magazine articles and newspaper clippings — many upside down, all out of order. Some of the globe’s most influential publications have featured stories about New Zealand’s “mild-mannered academic”: The Economist, Time, The New York Times, New Scientist, in addition to the stories from practically every local media outlet, past and present.
“Cyberheart,” proclaims New Scientist in a cover story in 1999. “It beats, it throbs, and it will change the face of medicine.”

“Virtual stunt doubles for your organs,” says Wired in 2005 — the same year Hunter was named New Zealand’s smartest scientist by Metro. “The doctor will see your prototype now.”

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“Why some scientists believe the future of medicine lies in creating digital twins,” is the headline in a Time article from April this year. The several hundred clippings form a snapshot of a vision — variously described by colleagues and journalists as everything from “on the edge of crazy” to “stupefying” — of an engineer who started work around 40 years ago combining biological experimentation (thousands of minute measurements done on hundreds of paper-thin slivers of heart tissue) to produce millions of data points for digital models.

His goal? By using the laws of physics, mathematical equations and computer power, the engineer, together with physiologist colleague Professor Bruce Smaill, wanted to make an interactive model of the human heart to understand illnesses better and test therapies.
Peter Hunter’s virtual heart has come a long way in two decades, but it’s still not finished. Teams of scientists around the world, including many at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute, continue to refine and enhance the digital heart.

Father Les, an inventor and engineer.
Peter and brother Ian Hunter.

In the meantime, Hunter’s vision has grown. He and his colleagues in New Zealand and overseas are creating digital models of the lungs, the gut, the musculoskeletal system, the brain, the uterus. The institute’s signature programme is called 12 Labours — named for the dozen mythical and supposed insurmountable challenges given to Greek hero Hercules to enable him to atone for killing his wife and children. The ABI’s feat of ingenuity and excellence is to understand and map our 12 organ systems. The $15-million project’s ambition is to develop personalised digital models of a whole body — a real, virtual human. 

Solve the mathematical modelling, apply computational power and it would be possible to create a digital twin of every patient.

Instead of researchers testing the impact of a treatment or drug on random people in trials, and then doctors hoping that same drug or treatment will work in a similar way with the individual in front of them, Hunter’s vision is that doctors will be able to test the impact of a medical intervention on anyone, using their digital twin.