The Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI) has been awarded $15 million to lead an international collaboration that
aims to translate years of clinical research on the mathematical modelling of human physiology into clinical practice.
Funding for the 12 Labours project been awarded through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s (MBIE’s)
Catalyst Strategic Fund, and is one of the largest research grants that MBIE has awarded the University.
The project is named in reference to the 12 labours of Hercules, the tasks Heracles had to complete to be granted
immortality, and also the 12 organ systems of the human body.
The ABI is engaged in a wide range of clinically oriented projects that include the mathematical modelling of the
cardiovascular, respiratory, gastrointestinal, lymphatic and musculoskeletal systems, as well as the brain, the
placenta, women’s pelvic floor muscles and more.
The funding is a timely recognition of the ABI’s history and impact, the Institute co-founded at the University of
Auckland by Professors Peter Hunter and Bruce Smaill 20 years ago this year.
The 12 Labours project will draw together and accelerate research built for the Physiome Project
, the Project led by the ABI under the auspices of the international Union of Physiological Sciences, to which dozens of
institutions around the world have contributed.
The overall goal of the Physiome Project is to build an online computational modelling framework that integrates
mathematical understanding of human biology at every level, linking genes, proteins, cells, organs and organ systems. It
aims to develop a complete virtual physiological human, ultimately allowing for patient-specific diagnosis and
We need to take a more mathematical and quantitative approach to healthcare, says Dr Hunter. “A lot of medical
strategies completely ignore physics,” he says. “Yet complex structures like human physiology can be described mathematically, and can be analysed mathematically, using a biophysically based understanding of human
Accurate diagnosis of a medical condition often needs data from medical images, physiological tests, blood biomarkers
and genetic tests. Linking those together requires quantitative tools based on multi-scale physiological models.”
The 12 Labours Project will draw on 20 years of research done at the ABI using clinical imaging and other forms of
diagnostic data, including data collected from a new generation of implantable and wearable medical devices, some
pioneered by the ABI, for both diagnostic sensing and therapeutic intervention.
The project involves three technology platforms and three ‘exemplar projects’, to demonstrate the healthcare
applications of their multiscale mathematical modelling.
This includes a focus on pulmonary hypertension (cardiovascular and respiratory systems), upper limb rehabilitation
(research on the neuro-musculoskeletal system) and research into the control of organ function by the autonomic nervous
system (maternal health and digestive function).
Once established, the researchers will be able to use the Technology Platforms developed in 12 Labours to implement
diagnostic and therapeutic strategies for a number of other organ systems and clinical procedures.
These exemplar projects draw on basic research programmes the ABI has carried out in collaboration with local and
international partners over many years, funded by the Health Research Council (HRC), the Marsden Fund, the Heart
Foundation, the Auckland Medical Research Fund (AMRF), and other national funding agencies, and international grants
from organisations such as the Wellcome Trust, the European Commission, and the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).
This research is often in collaboration with colleagues in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences (FMHS) at the
University and often with the direct involvement of health practitioners from District Health Boards (DHBs).
The 12 Labours project ultimately aims to develop a framework to apply the maths in clinical practice – in assessment,
diagnosis and treatment - in a way that will allow for a more patient-centric assessment of health status than is
currently possible, says Dr Hunter.
“It’s about enabling clinicians to make more rational decisions, introducing the power of predictive modelling, and all
the knowledge of physiological function that we have encapsulated in our models over 20 years.”
Creating an integrated physiological and monitoring framework and introducing it into clinical practice is a ‘grand
challenge’ requiring significant international collaboration. It is also one which the ABI is well-placed to lead having
pioneered multiscale computational physiology through its leadership of the Physiome Project, having collaborated with
clinical scientists over many years in a very wide range of clinical imaging projects, and developed substantial
capability in biomedical instrumentation including in implantable and wearable device technologies.
To emphasise the importance of applying a bioengineering understanding of human physiology in clinical practice,
Professor Hunter compares the human body to an aeroplane.
“We get on an aeroplane, knowing that the chance of a crash is tiny, because we trust the engineering processes behind
it, scrutinising the plane, maintaining the engine, correcting things before they go wrong, making sure we are kept
safe. Why should we not demand that for our own bodies? The problem is that medicine has largely ignored 100 years of
advances in engineering physics.
“So this is about trying to bring engineering disciplines and physics, together with physiology, into the interpretation
of the human biological system. Sure, the biological system is complex, but so is an airbus.”