Scientists from the UK and other European countries have developed a 'virtual liver' in a bid to help doctors evaluate patients for cancer surgery.
The work was done in a project called Patient-Specific Simulation and Pre-Operative Realistic Training (PASSPORT), which began in June 2008 and ended in December 2011. On Thursday, the European Commission — which provided the bulk of the research funding — claimed success in the scheme's objectives.
"Liver cancer claims hundreds of thousands of lives in Europe and the world," digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes said in a statement. "The technology developed in the EU-funded PASSPORT project is a breakthrough that will improve diagnosis and surgery, and help to save lives."
When livers are affected by cancer, transplantation is something of a last resort. Surgery is an alternative — the liver is a peculiar organ in that it can usually rebuild itself after a part is removed.
However, surgeons looking to remove parts of a liver have to know precisely where the tumour is, while also accurately assessing how much of the functional liver's volume would remain post-surgery. According to the EU, the difficulty of making this assessment means less than half of liver cancer patients undergo surgery.
PASSPORT is an online service that can take medical images from a radiologist and build them into a patient-specific virtual liver, for the benefit of physicians who can then use it to assess the patient.
The programme is actually part of a wider project called the Virtual Physiological Human Network of Excellence (VPH NoE), the purpose of which is to support research into biomedical modelling and simulation.
Ultimately, the aim is to let surgeons use multi-layered virtual models of the patient's body to zoom in and see organs, tissue and even cells, so diseases can be tracked.
PASSPORT was a joint project carried out by scientists and surgeons from the UK's Imperial College and University College London, as well as colleagues from universities and institutes in Germany, France and Switzerland.
According to the Commission, the scheme cost a total of €5.5m (£4.5m), €3.6m of which came from EU funding. The EU funds a fair number of medical technology schemes, such as the development of robotic neurosurgeons.