The Virtual Body Workshop' Current and Future Application of Human Biology Models in Environmental Health Research

Article excerpt

Biological modeling across the continuum from molecular to whole organisms has played and will continue to play an important role in understanding the effects of exposure to environmental agents on biological systems. A major element of many future research programs will be the development of a new generation of advanced biological models that closely couple high-performance computing with experimental research in an infrastructure that supports interactive, collaborative investigation. Environmental health researchers have often turned to computer models to help understand and predict how exposure to environmental agents affects human health. The need for modeling has grown as the problems we face in environmental health have become progressively more complex. Reliable, predictive biological models are required to handle this complexity, particularly as researchers struggle with limited resources and continued trends to reduce animal experimentation.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), in collaboration with universities and the Department of Energy national laboratories, is now pursuing these next-generation predictive models to meet the challenges of today's explosive rate of scientific knowledge acquisition. In June 2000, the first of two workshops jointly sponsored by NIEHS and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and organized by James Selkirk (NIEHS) and Ronald A. Walters (PNNL) was held at the NIEHS research campus. The organizers brought together a diverse group of scientists to help identify current needs and a future vision for the next generation of biologically based models.

As a first step, the symposium participants were asked to explore collectively what is technically feasible in developing the next generation of biological models and to identify the key research and infrastructure needs to advance the field. The overall objective of the workshop was to help identify potential approaches for developing more fully integrated anatomically and physiologically based models (for both animal and human systems) that could be incorporated into a framework that includes molecular, cellular, and whole-organ systems within a user-friendly simulation platform. It is envisioned that these advanced models will form the structural underpinnings of a more fully integrated biological model or "virtual body."

Workshop Overview

The symposium was organized around three major topic areas: environmental health effects of concern, current state-of-the-art modeling capabilities in environmental health, and new approaches and technologies in biological modeling. The format for the workshop incorporated both scientific presentations by leading experts in their fields and small, facilitated breakout group discussions. Participants brought many perspectives to these discussions, with participants having expertise in computational biology and modeling, biological imaging, and bioinformatics, as well as traditional areas of pharmacology, physiology, biochemistry, and molecular and structural biology. Group discussions focused on the value as well as the limitations of the current approaches, alternative directions and needs for future research, and an initial evaluation of how such advanced models would contribute positively to environmental health research. A list of the all the participating speakers, their presentation titles, and professional affiliations is presented in Table 1.

Table 1. Program for Human Biology Models
for Environmental Health Effects.

Speaker                 Title                    Affiliation

I. Environmental
    Health Effects
    of Concern
  C. Barrett            Carcinogenic health      National Cancer
                          effects                  Institute
  B. Davis              Realities of             NIEHS
                          reproduction for the
                          virtual human
  J. …