Virtual heart created by BSC researchers on display at London Science Museum

09 November 2023

BSC bioengineer Jazmin Aguado Sierra is the first scientist to create a large-scale virtual model of her own heart to simulate the interactions between electrical impulses, muscle contraction and blood flow. 

The simulation was generated in the BSC MareNostrum supercomputer to solve 5 billion state variables that describe the cardiac function captured from sources including electrocardiographs and MRI scans of her heart tissues

The virtual heart, and wider research into digital medicine, have huge implications for the future of predictive and personalised medicine and disease monitoring, transforming how we could treat illness in the future

A complex and impressing simulation of a beating human heart created by researchers of the Barcelona Supercomputing Center – Centro Nacional de Supercomputación (BSC-CNS) was unveiled at the Science Museum in London (United Kingdom), one of the world’s leading science museums. Created by BSC bioengineer Jazmín Aguado-Sierra using scans of her own heart, the virtual heart shows the complex interactions between electrical impulses, muscle contraction and blood flow in the heart - a feat only possible using supercomputer power.

Aguado-Sierra used her own data captured from sources including electrocardiographs that measured electrical impulses and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans of her heart tissues. The heart anatomical descriptions were then inputted into mathematical equations that described her heart’s workings and her virtual heart was brought to life by the BSC MareNostrum supercomputer to reproduce her heart in remarkable detail using Alya Red, the finite element code developed  from scratch at BSC.  The heart visualizations have been developed by the BSC Data Visualization group.

The simulation contains 5 billion state variables with each snapshot of her virtual heart changing every hundred thousandth of a second, which works at different length scales using distinct kinds of physics. If a human attempted to calculate them all, it would take almost 57 billion years to complete and analyse or interpret the findings. But using MareNostrum and Alya Red, it takes just 9 hours to solve.

Dr Jazmin Aguado Sierra from BSC said: “The first time I saw my heart pumping it was fascinating! The fact that you can see it live on your screen being solved by a computer – that is you, and every characteristic is describing yourself. Supercomputing is changing the way modelling works and having access to my own data enriches the model that much faster. The more I learn about my heart, the more I will be able to produce new protocols or new tests which is exciting for the future of predictive and personalised medicine”.

The new model builds on earlier research and allows us to better understand this vital organ which beats 100,000 times a day to supply oxygen around the body. The calculations can be adjusted to simulate different heart conditions, showing why a heart beats too fast, too slow or irregularly. Doctors and researchers can also test treatments before they are used on patients, and in the future, digital twins of entire bodies could be made, transforming how we could predict, diagnose and treat illness.

Real world applications of this simulation range from clinical research, diagnosis of heart problems and testing new drugs, surgeries, and treatments. In the near future, learning algorithms could also analyse the performance of the heart as we age and which recognise unusual patterns that may indicate a need for treatment long before we are even aware of it, forecasting disease.

Roger Highfield, Science Director, Science Museum Group, said: “All sorts of virtual organs are now being developed, with the heart the most sophisticated and personalised of all. We can do virtual tests of new drugs, recreate blood flow around the body, plan delicate epilepsy surgery on the brain, even create virtual breaths and sneezes, as well as help replace the use of animals in research. This work on digital twin technology, like our new Virtual Heart display, marks the dawn of truly personalised and predictive medicine”.

The life size Virtual Heart display will sit within the Bodies section of the Engineers gallery at the British Science Museum. This section examines collaborations between clinicians, medical engineers and patients, and showcases real-world solutions that place people and their bodies at the heart of precision engineering practice.