March 15, 2016

As 3D technology continues to expand in all directions, one application that is emerging from the medical field is the 3D representation of the human body. I’ve always had a vague idea of how 3D modeling the human body and its function could be helpful to practitioners and patients, but after seeing a 3D human visualization platform first-hand during a presentation from BioDigital last week at REAL 2016, I’ve truly begun to realize just how important the digital world is to our physical health. Now, the latest digital revelation of the human body is coming out of Duke University, where lead researcher Amanda Randles and her team have engineered a supercomputer simulation to digitally represent almost every artery in the human body.

The software used to make the 3D representation was able to replicate every artery that measured 1mm across or wider, and were even able to simulate virtual blood flow through these arteries as well. The virtual human artery system was named Harvey, as a tribute to the 17th century physician William Harvey, who was the first to discover that our blood flow loops around our body. In order to determine the accuracy of the 3D blood flow, the research team compared flow patterns with a 3D printed aorta replica.

The blood flow in both the 3D printed replica and digital representation ended up very closely matched to one another, showcasing the supercomputer’s ability to recreate not just the physical form of the components that make up our bodies, but also the functionality of them as well.

All of the 3D modeling by the system takes place at the Lawerence Livermore National Laboratory in California. According to Dr. Randles, this supercomputer is one of the top ten out there, equipped with 1.6 million processors. One of the team’s goals is to test out different interventions, such as stents or other modifications, that would affect the system in light of cardiovascular disease. “We’ll be able to change the mesh file, representing the vasculature, to represent different treatment options,” Dr Randles said. “Typically you would look at the local haemodynamic changes, but by having a simulation of the whole body we can see how that would affect the large-scale haemodynamics.”

The similarities between simulated flow and physical flow

In order to create the physical 3D printed comparison, Dr. Randles and her team collaborated with David Frakes, an engineer located at Arizona State University whose groundbreaking research we’ve covered in the past. Frakes helped to 3D print a model of the scanned aorta in order to forge a transparent mold, through which the flow of the fluid was tracked with reflective particles. The team was pleased to see that the blood flow in both the physical and digital aorta models were extremely similar. But they aren’t quite finished with the human body just yet. Now, the research team is working on building a mesh model of Harvey’s veins, and ultimately hope to embed capillaries into the 3D human body system, which will allow them to delve deeper and predict the movement of individual blood cells.


The other hope is that their supercomputer-generated 3D model will someday be used for patient-specific scenarios, where input parameters would make it possible to represent the personalized model without the need of the supercomputer. All-in-all, the research team hopes to continue mapping out our blood flow’s freeway, and continue to prove that digitizing the human body will help us better understand what is actually happening in the physical world.