Bioengineers feature in report to donors

18 September 2017
See caption.
David Nickerson (left) and Geoffrey Handsfield

Bioengineer Geoffrey Handsfield is focused on a paradox in cerebral palsy.

“Cerebral palsy is challenging because it is a non-progressive neural disease and the muscular co-ordination symptoms get worse as the children grow, whereas in children without the condition muscle co-ordination improves with age.”

With the help of a $1 million Aotearoa Foundation Fellowship from New York-based philanthropist Julian Robertson, Geoffrey, a researcher at Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI), will spend the next four years expanding research to understand and model cerebral palsy.

“We need to understand why muscle growth is different for kids with cerebral palsy,” says Geoffrey. “As kids grow and move they stimulate muscles, so we need to understand the muscles’ response to stimuli and how that response is different for kids with cerebral palsy.”

Working with orthopaedic surgeons and using MRI, Geoffrey aims to build computational models that will capture the shape, growth and cellular processes of muscles in children with the disease.

“With computational models the muscle cells exist in the computer and we can observe how they change over time. We hope to link this to what we observe in whole muscles.”

Once Geoffrey’s research can confidently model what is happening to muscles in children with cerebral palsy, it may then be possible to start looking at ways to treat muscle deterioration pharmacologically.

And this is just the sort of cutting-edge research into new healthcare diagnostic and therapeutic strategies that is at the heart of $6.8 million Julian Robertson has donated to ABI and the University’s Centre for Brain Research.

But while Geoffrey is working with a paradox, the other ABI Aotearoa Fellow, honorary research fellow David Nickerson, is making sure there are no paradoxical or ambiguous meanings in computational modelling of the human body.

He is working with researchers around the globe to standardise and clearly describe models created for the Physiome Project – a computational framework that is advancing understanding of human physiology by modelling every organ and function.

“We need to develop software tools and guidelines to standardise how models and associated data are described,” says David. For example, if I say ‘the pressure of the blood in the left ventricle’ then someone else reading that will know exactly what I mean.”

David’s work will make it possible for non-specialists to easily find computational models that are useful.

“Doctors and researchers will be able to rapidly assemble models to investigate specific hypotheses,” he says. “For example, one day Geoffrey could propose a drug to treat cerebral palsy which we test in a full virtual human, where we may predict adverse effects for the heart. This will guide treatment modifications prior to launching clinical trials.” 

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