Hours of my life were once wasted trying to keep an imaginary avatar happy. Getting them up for work on time, making sure they’re fed, even keeping up awkward social interactions in some made-up language. And all for what? Nothing, mostly.
Recent news would seem to suggest that I’m not the only scientist that every enjoyed spending a little time in the virtual world. Now, scientists are beginning to try to incorporate this love into a sort of simulated experiment. Dr. Daniel Beard and his team at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee plans to begin crafting computer models of rat physiology to fashion a ‘virtual rat’ that will be used for the study of a range of diseases. Known as the “Virtual Physiological Rat”, this is a project just beginning that will receive funding support from the NIH over the next five years.
Why a virtual rat? Think of it as an intelligent, efficient, even green solution to the growing costs of research. As I’ve described many times, we often perform our research in organisms that we use to model human disease, because we obviously can’t go testing new drugs in humans from the get-go. Rats and mice are wonderful models that in many ways reflect human physiology, more so than you might expect or care to think about. But, those animals have to be housed, fed, bred and cared for medically. For the number of animals required for experiments, this can quickly add up to thousands of dollars per year.
Enter the systems biologist. Dr. Beard plans to start a tremendous undertaking that I can’t even begin to completely comprehend. What it boils down to is first a massive study of real-life rats and how their bodies work. They will analyze tissues and live rats to characterize and measure various physiological functions across several genetic strains. Then, in what has to be incredibly complicated and difficult computing, they will create computer models of normal physiological functions based on this data.
Over time, as they learn more from their studies and those of colleagues around the world, they will be able to add incredible amounts of information to their simulations to make them increasingly true to life. The end result, of course, is a simulated rat that lives on a hard drive. Then you can play with various parameters in the model to see how physiological functions are affected. Think of it like the software that meteorologists would use to predict upcoming weather based on recent events, etc. It will be a truly valuable means of analyzing individual details in what are usually very complex diseases.
One day this model could have incredible predictive power. This won’t ever completely replace live rats, but perhaps you could plug a “virtual drug compound” into the rat model and learn of the predicted outcome. If the simulations give a promising outcome, you move forward. If not, all you’ve wasted is a little time at your desktop. This group even plans to use this system to see if it can accurately predict the disease outcome of a genetic mutation.
Sounds like a lot more of a worthwhile endeavor than trying to initiate a romantic encounter between two avatars in a hot tub. Not only will this lead to a cheaper experimental alternative, the Virtual Physiological Rat will vastly improve our research efficiency and, hey, even ease some of the moral/ethical issues of animal research. This will surely be an intriguing bit of research to stay up to date with.
Thanks & Gig ‘Em.
-See the original story by Allison MacLachlan the NIH Center for Systems Biology page.-