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Distinguished Professor Peter Hunter’s internationally recognised expertise on ‘virtual twins’ – digital representations of a person for healthcare – has been rewarded with funding from Horizon Europe, the European Union’s largest-ever research and innovation programme.

VITAL – Virtual Twins as tools for personalised clinicAL care – is led by the University of Gent in Belgium and includes researchers from across Europe and the UK and now, New Zealand. It aims to create tools for personalised clinical care. The total project has funding of about NZ$21.75 million with NZ$1.83m for our research team at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI).

Professor Hunter was one of only two New Zealand researchers to gain funding from Horizon Europe Pillar 2 which addresses major global challenges such as climate change and the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. He credits the support of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Enterprise (MBIE) in gaining such prestigious international funding.

“We will engage with European researchers and clinicians who are focusing on the same concept as ABI – the digital twin. We will add our modelling expertise to their work on the cardiovascular system which will also contribute to our 12 Labours work,” says Professor Hunter.

Professor Merryn Tawhai will partner with Professor Hunter on VITAL. ““With ABI’s stellar record of nearly 30 years of computational physiology and bioinstrumentation, we are in a prime position to leverage ourselves as a world leader,” she says.

“There is huge potential for digital humans to be transformative technology in healthcare. The ABI is already the leader in infrastructural capability to enable digital humans to be more than just a concept. This is a unifying whole-of-institute initiative.”

New Zealand’s funding comes into effect in 2024 and will support six PhD researchers, and three post-docs jointly with other grants. “If we do a good job and can demonstrate good clinical outcomes to MBIE, there’s a good chance of gaining further funding,” says Professor Hunter. The Europeans are investing heavily in digital twins for healthcare and have a coordinating action called EDITH that we are contributing to.

By the end of the VITAL project, the platform will have been validated and tested in more than 200 patients across five clinical studies in France and the UK. VITAL will also monitor the mental health of patients to understand their expectations and reservations towards digital health technology.

Professor Hunter recently stepped down as Director of ABI to focus on research and, as he put it rather wryly, to reduce his meeting workload. VITAL kicks off in February 2024 with a meeting and a long list of prescriptive tasks, milestones and progress reporting, and quite probably many meetings to replace those he gave up.


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