How digital babies are helping advance infant health research

7 Jun 2024

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An Irish-German study is hoping to improve diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions during the early days of a baby’s life using computational modelling.

Researchers at University of Galway have created digital babies, or computational models of infants, based on extensive real-world data, to advance precision medicine in the first 180 days of human life.

In a study published this week in Cell Metabolism, a team of scientists based in the Digital Metabolic Twin Centre at University of Galway and Heidelberg University used data from 10,000 newborns – including sex, birth weight and metabolite concentrations – to create 360 computational whole-body models to simulate the infant metabolism.

These models, according to project study lead Prof Ines Thiele, have 26 organs, six cell types and more than 80,000 metabolic reactions.

“Newborn screening programmes are crucial for detecting metabolic diseases early on, enhancing infant survival rates and health outcomes. However, the variability observed in how these diseases manifest in babies underscores the urgent need for personalised approaches to disease management,” said Thiele, who is a principal investigator at APC Microbiome Ireland.

“Our models allow researchers to investigate the metabolism of healthy infants as well as infants suffering from inherited metabolic diseases, including those investigated in newborn screening.”

The idea is to advance precision medicine in babies using computational modelling. This can lead to an improvement in the diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions during the early days of a baby’s life, such as inherited metabolic diseases.

“When simulating the metabolism of infants with a disease, the models showed we can predict known biomarkers for these diseases,” Thiele said. “Furthermore, the models accurately predicted metabolic responses to various treatment strategies, showcasing their potential in clinical settings.”

To conduct the study, the University of Galway collaborated with Germany’s Heidelberg University, Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies and Heidelberg University Hospital.

Lead author of the paper, PhD researcher Elaine Zaunseder of Heidelberg University, said that babies are “not just small adults” but that they have “unique metabolic features” that allow them to develop and grow up healthy.

“For instance, babies need more energy for regulating body temperature due to, for example, their high surface-area-to-mass ratio, but they cannot shiver in the first six months of life, so metabolic processes must ensure the infant keeps warm,” explained Zaunseder.

“Therefore, an essential part of this research work was to identify these metabolic processes and translate them into mathematical concepts that could be applied in the computational model. We captured metabolism in an organ-specific manner, which offers the unique opportunity to model organ-specific energy demands that are very different in infants compared to adults.

“As nutrition is the fuel for metabolism, we can use breast milk data from real newborns in our models to simulate the associated metabolism throughout the baby’s entire body, including various organs. Based on their nutrition, we simulated the development of digital babies over six months and showed that they will grow at the same rate as real-world infants.”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic

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