March 17, 2021 - Podcast

Episode 104—Digital twins, and food packaging safety

It has been just over a year since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, with vaccines becoming more widely available and some restrictions loosening, Americans are starting to eagerly anticipate a return to normalcy. How can we better prepare for the next time we’re faced with a novel disease? Researchers at Indiana University and the University of Florida suggest a unique method for better modeling human disease and predicting future health issues: digital twins. Improved mathematical models of human health and disease, using digital twins, could lead to better health care outcomes and faster responses to novel diseases. James Glazier, a professor of intelligent systems engineering at IU Bloomington, says digital twins combine a computer model that predicts how a system will evolve with real-time measurements of individuals. While most people wait to see a doctor until they are sick, Glazier says this system could actually help predict when there will be a problem and identify small interventions that help prevent it from becoming serious. Digital twins could help make predictions for viral infection and the immune response, he says, which allows rapid design of interventions to make people healthier. Doctors and medical professionals could also perform controlled and repeatable experiments with digital twins to discover how outcomes differ for various interventions, helping to identify the optimal treatment plan. With COVID-19, patients can have a variety of symptoms, and there is no way to predict in detail how an individual will react to being infected or to available treatments. Glazier says digital twins could change this by providing a better understanding of a person’s immune system. By building models that are able to explore how immune responses work, we can potentially design better vaccination strategies, he says. The researchers hope that with more use of digital twins, the ability to battle both known and unknown illnesses will be improved. Glazier says this work will provide many of the pieces necessary to rapidly develop detailed predictive models for diagnosis, prognosis and treatment when faced with a future pandemic.

In other news, while many individuals over the last year took special precautions when it came to handling food bought from the grocery or at the drive-thru, how many of us stopped to think about harmful substances found in the packaging itself? IU Bloomington research scientist Amina Salamova and colleagues are studying the toxic chemicals in food packaging, specifically polyfluoroalkyl substances, a class of chemicals widely used in food packaging because of their non-stick properties and ability to repel oil. Salamova and colleagues are performing the first systematic survey of these chemicals in both domestic and imported packaged foods, research she says will provide much needed insight into a group of chemicals that are widely used by not well understood. Polyfluoroalkyl substances can accumulate in the human body, and people who consume many packaged foods or fast food have higher concentrations in their blood, indicating the chemicals from the packaging enter bodies through contaminated food. Some of these chemicals have been voluntarily removed from US markets and banned in the European Union, but some countries are not bound by these restrictions. Salamova says her research could have big implications for consumer safety, and her team hopes to contribute to better policymaking by making regulators aware of the types of food imports most likely to contain these toxic substances. She says the team also hopes to provide guidance that can help consumers reduce their exposure to toxic chemicals and inform scientists about how specific structures of the chemicals can lead to increased toxicity to help them design less hazardous chemicals.