Digital breaths: The benefits of Bioengineering

Digital breaths: The benefits of Bioengineering
23 July 2018

By Debbie Scott
BHB Respiratory Nurse Educator

This was the topic the presentation given in June, by Professor Merryn Tawhai, Deputy Director of Auckland Bioengineering Institute, speaking at EIT as part of the 2018 New Zealand Research Series hosted by the Royal Society Te Apārangi.

No other group in the world has focused on bioengineering, a structure-based mathematical models of lungs. These models simulate the structure of lungs in three dimensions producing a virtual laboratory that can be used in applied studies. This ground-breaking research here in Aotearoa is being conducted by her research team to try to derive new image and model-based biomarkers for use, relatively simply, in a clinical setting to indicate how rapidly the progress of disease may take place.

Understanding physiology leads to improved diagnosis of lung conditions but because the lungs are not the most accessible of organs, obtaining detailed measurements of lungs has traditionally been difficult and consequently complications arise in diagnosis. Over diagnosing and underdiagnosing can be problems; e.g. early symptoms of COPD can look like normal ageing. Standard diagnosis using lung function tests to measure volumes is the standard diagnostic tool with CT scans involving radiation images when there is a suspicion of serious disease but interpreting this data in relation to lab testing and imaging still poses difficulties distinguishing from normal ageing effects.

New tools for diagnosis, prognosis or treatment of lung disease are needed for clinicians to use in a health environment constrained by costs.

Using measurements from healthy normal subjects in an Auckland Study plus lab data accessed from research colleagues in USA, Professor Merryn’s research involves recreating the structure of 1. The airway tree; 2. The vascular tree; 3. The lung shape itself and then simulating 1. Airflow; 2. blood flow and tissue deforms.

Once all these different pieces of data from individual patients are then applied to the comprehensive models of the lungs it becomes possible to derive information such as the type and degree of thoracic cavity changes, stiffening and narrowing of the airways and effects of age-related diseases.

If fibrosis occurs in a certain part of someone’s lung then associated mathematical data can be inserted into the model in the correct location in order to understand the impact this will have on lung function.

Over time it is hoped that key biomarkers (new information) will show up from what is currently known about age-related processes and influence current practice. In cases where lung tissue damage arises from radiotherapy treatment there is scope to determine which patients might benefit from radiotherapy treatment for lung cancer by assessing how overall lung function will be affected after treating with radiotherapy.

It is an exciting development to realise that in this country bioengineering is being explained to an upcoming generation so that they can appreciate what mathematics, science and engineering can lead to.


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