Here is a chat with Prof. Marco Evangelos Biancolini, Associate Professor and member of the Scientific board of the Doctorate School at the University of Rome “Tor Vergata”. He is the Principal Investigator of the MeDiTATe project and the academic supervisor for Early Stage Researchers 1, 9 and 12.

Professor Biancolini, the MeDiTATe project is now in its 2nd year. What are your thoughts at this stage of the project? 

I am writing this answer at 33000ft while traveling toward Trondheim to reach all our ESRs for a training event. Sounds good, isn’t it? Despite the pandemic and all the difficulties faced we are now in a very good position. We are recovering all the missed opportunities to work together in person. All the IRPs are progressing good and the hard time of the lockdown and at home working is, hopefully, ended. Last week we had an internal meeting to arrange the upcoming summer school in Greece. The industrial and scientific program is progressing as expected and we are all enthusiastic to consolidate our MeDiTATe community thanks to the many in person meetings we are finally allowed to do.

Let’s talk about the idea behind MeDiTATe. The project received funding from the EU in the Framework of Horizon 2020 programme, therefore it is clear that the approach that you propose meets the EU’s ambition to exploit scientific research to improve the treatment of the Cardiovascular diseases and patient care. How can the scientific community benefit from your work?

I am proud and happy to lead this project. MeDiTATe originated from an industrial and scientific network already active in the in silico approach and committed toward the creation of Medical Digital Twins. We are a European Industrial Doctorate (EID) and the synergy between industry, academic and health research is a paramount. Our EID nature is not only important for our ESRs that are acquiring top skills and a mindset oriented toward the deployment of what learnt, but also for the high TRL we can reach thanks to the industrial partners involvement that is allowing us to start the transfer of results right now, in the middle of the project. It is worth to emphasize that we have already pending patents. This means that benefits are not only limited to the scientific community but will soon help patients, and this is our major focus. We are not doing here basic research and I believe that one of the major benefit for the scientific community will be in the strong connection we are creating with cohorts of patient data within MeDiTATe and the state of the art and beyond state of the art approach we are setting up in the definition of a Medical Digital Twin.

The entire project is based on the collaboration within the members of a very large Consortium in which private and public companies, hospitals and research institutions and universities work together. Could you describe how these different worlds are cooperating?

As commented in the previous answer, this is the great value of MeDiTATe. We have top scientists leading our research (recently Simona Celi was selected as one of the top 10 Italian woman scientist and Stephane Avril received an advanced ERC grant), this give us best in class knowledge and perspective. At the same time we have industries ready to roll out the Medical Digital Twin; this facilitates the transfer of the technology that is becoming soon available. We have many hospitals connected and this is the most important thing because MeDiTATe roadmaps are continuously steered by medical experts with a clear focus of what is needed right now and what is the vision to enable the Medical Digital Twin over the next years. Our ESRs work daily with computer simulations, 3d printed mockup and in vitro experiments. And they spend many days in the hospitals and attend to hours of cardiovascular surgery as well.

What are the differences between this Industrial Doctoral Programme and a more canonical one?

The most adopted Innovative Training Networks (ITNs) are the ETN (European Training Networks); EID and EJD (European Industrial/Joint Doctorates) are a small niche. As an EID and we have a different philosophy and different rules vs ETN. Our ESRs must spend at least 50% of their time in the industry and are employed by two beneficiaries (industry academia) in different countries. They have also a rich secondments plan, that in some situation are many months at further partners’ premises. Each IRPs foresees a mix of tasks to be conducted at universities, industries and medical institutions. It means mentoring from academia, healthcare research and a more business oriented industrial environment. It’s hard for them (in some cases they move in 3 different countries and partner facilities in 3 years) but such mobility is the core idea of EID to have highly technical and scientific profiles ready to put at work in real life what we need for the deployment of Medical Digital Twins.

One of the core ideas of the MeDiTATe project is to develop a Digital Twin and to make it available as “a service” for clients ranging from hospitals to private companies. Could you explain what impact could have on patients’ treatments?

MeDiTATe is “The Medical Digital Twin for Aneurysm Prevention and Treatment”. The focus is clearly on cardiovascular and the specific case of aneurysms. However the basic idea can be easily extended to cardiovascular applications in general (one of our partner, the University of Sydney is adopting our approach for pediatric hearth valve). In a nutshell, a digital twin is a digital replica of the patient, based mainly on image data, which allow to predict evolution of the pathology and outcome of the treatment in advance. So increasing the success and decreasing the risk. With MeDiTATe we are not limiting our research to the creation and validation of Medical Digital Twin, we are already implementing this approach in the medical practice. Prototypes of improved software that are part of the imaging gear already exist and allow to “see” the digital twin in action right on the images during their acquisition. We are working driven by the feedback of neuro surgeons and cardio surgeons to create simple tools, using as a base the software currently adopted for segmentation, so that the MDT evaluations can be accessed directly by the medical doctors as “usual” image data.

What about the ESRs? Beside technical abilities, which skills do you think they will acquire at the end of the project?

The passion and the ambition that drove them to enter an EID programme is indeed a great starting point to pursue the excellence we planned in the school. MeDiTATe it is not only a matter of Digital Technologies and Engineering, our focus is 100% about patients. Our ESRs have different backgrounds for the studies they did before MeDiTATe and for the countries and the culture they come from. The pandemic was difficult for everybody, especially for young researchers with the expectation of growing across an international network of experts. As said, difficulties have gone and now we are recovering and strengthening the interactions. For them is now “natural” to move from the computer to the surgery room and thanks to the multiple cross consortium cooperation they are learning not only the science and the engineering; they have already a good awareness about the business models that are behind the healthcare and so they will be able in the future to lead medical innovation translating the top notch research into deployable advanced medical solutions.

Do you want to leave a message to our readers?

When we submitted MeDiTATe to the EC we drafted a logo representing the “Thinker” by Rodin. Because MeDiTATe it is not only the acronym of a technology but a concept of focus, with time and calm, toward the perfect blend of science and technology. When the final logo was decided, we struggled about a brain, representing the digital twin artificial intelligence, and a heart, that was the main target of our cardiovascular project. Now that the project is in the half way, we are still mixing hearth and brain to make MeDiTATe successful.