A Role for Chemical Engineers in Systems Approaches to Physiology and Clinical Medicine

March 12th, 9:15 Auditorium AII

Faculty of Chemical and Process Engineering Warsaw University of Technology

There is a significant change in the way that life and medical scientists and go about their business of unscrambling the mysteries of life and how clinicians diagnose and make operational decisions.  In this talk I will show how Chemical Engineers, and in particular Process Systems Engineers, have an important role to play in this field, one so important for human well-being.  At the 2005 Chemical Engineering World Congress in Glasgow Denis Noble, Professor of Physiology at Oxford, spoke in his plenary lecture about the computational model of the heart that he and his research group have developed over the past thirty or more years.  Their project reflects true systems thinking in physiology.  The European Federation of Chemical Engineers has recently established a Section ‘Chemical Engineering Applications in Medicine’ to build the community and share research ideas.

The potential role of Process Systems Engineers in physiology and medicine is in developing engineering design and analysis approaches to modelling biological systems across multiple levels – cell signalling networks, gene, protein and metabolic networks, movement of molecules and fluids, through to whole physiological systems.  The 21st Century challenge in the Life Sciences is to bring together widely dispersed models and understanding in order to enable system-wide understanding of these complex systems. Chemical Engineers tackle multiple scale problems in manufacturing processes – from molecular scale through unit operations scale to plant-wide and enterprise wide systems – so we have an appropriate skill set.

What is needed are systems approaches to modelling complex chemical and physical interactions at multiple scales in living systems through Chemical Engineering analysis.  Engineering design techniques will be increasingly needed to be able to make reliable system-wide predictions of the effects of interventions which are proposed by the ‘design’ process.  Interventions can be environmental, through the introduction of chemical agents, pharmacological, through clinical interventions, or genetic.  We should also clarify the range of uncertainty that can be tolerated in the proposed environmental or clinical action and work back through the models to ensure that the range of uncertainty in the data on which the model is based is of sufficient accuracy to meet the ‘design tolerance’.  Again this is systems thinking that Engineers are familiar with.

The talk will discuss these issues and the role that Process Systems Engineers can play, in collaboration with life and clinical scientists.  The talk will draw on a range of physiological systems including three projects at UCL.  The first is a project which is building an in-silico model of the human liver, scaling up models from the molecular level to the liver, an epithelial organ.  The composite model so far models glucose regulation in the liver and associated organs.  The second project has modelled the effects of blood flow on endothelial cells lining arteries, taking into account cell shape change resulting in changes in the cell skeleton which cause consequent chemical changes.  The third is looking at complex networks which control cancer.  The projects involve molecular transport, chemical reactions, and complex multiscale systems, all attributes of systems with which Process Systems Engineers have experience.