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Harnessing computer power to unlock the secrets of the human body

Dr Nick Plant, reader in molecular toxicology, is part of a team utilising computational biology to investigate how the body works.

This research forms an important part of a wider international project that could see the creation of first the ‘in silico liver’, and ultimately the ‘in silico human’ – a computer model of the entire human body system.

Dr Plant's latest research, published in Nature Communications focused on how the body responds to stress.

Using data from both primary liver cells treated in vitro and scientific literature, the team built a computational model that reproduces the interaction of the stress hormone cortisol with its two nuclear receptors, the glucocorticoid receptor and the pregnane X receptor.

The model showed that while the system can adapt to low and medium levels of stress, under high stress situations it can no longer cope with the levels of cortisol produced – and this could predispose the body to diseases such as fatty liver, metabolic syndrome and diabetes.

Dr Plant said: “The University of Surrey is internationally recognised for its systems modelling of viruses and bacteria, and is now making a significant contribution to understating human biology.

“The model is important in a number of ways. It shows that we can use the power of computational biology to link a small scale molecular change to a disease risk with real impact on the human population. It also allows us to put meat on the bones of our computer model of the liver, filling it with robust biological data, making it more and more predictive. This will allow us to better understand the complex interplay of molecules in the liver, how this may predispose people to disease, and how to develop new treatments.”

While a complete ‘in silico human’ is expected to take around 25 years to complete, smaller computational models are already making a difference, offering more effective, cheaper and ethically more acceptable ways of testing new therapeutics or developing lifestyle advice.

Dr Plant said: “These are early steps, but by understanding how individual parts of the body work we’re making the foundations that will allow us to produce the ‘in silico human’ - and that’s when we’ll start making huge steps forward in medicine.”

Find out more about our Biosciences and Medicine programmes and our research in the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences.

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