Doctors may one day be able to remotely monitor a patient’s heart using software that exactly duplicates the person’s organ — a digital twin.

Digital twins are a common tool used in industries ranging from construction to carmaking to aviation. For instance, a duplicate on the ground of a jet engine carrying the proper sensors can be watched to see how its real counterpart is operating thousands of feet in the air.

Researchers in the U.S. and Europe, led by Frank Rademakers of Belgium’s University Hospitals Leuven, are part of a project aimed at developing twins of the human heart. While years may be needed to fully duplicate a complex organ like the heart, some of the monitoring devices that will be needed are close to being available, according to The Economist.

The goal of digital twins in healthcare is to use artificial intelligence to enable more personalized care and treatment without forcing people to visit doctors’ offices or hospitals for checkups. A patient could wear trackers or sensors that send data to the virtual twin, which would be monitored for any irregularities or stresses. If any occur, the patient would be told to seek care. 

Companies are already exploring wearable technology that helps track cardiovascular issues. Startup Bloomer Tech is developing a bra with sensors aimed at monitoring a woman’s heart functions, while Apple and Johnson & Johnson this week announced a study to determine if the Apple Watch’s digital health tools may be able to detect irregular heartbeats.

Hari Harikrishnan, co-founder of Silicon Valley digital-health solutions company Plethy, has argued that everyone should have a digital twin of their entire body to help monitor their health. Granted, he wrote in 2018, the human body is too complex for such a project to be easily accomplished. He said the focus should be on developing twins of the brain, heart, pancreas, liver, lungs and intestine, where most of the top causes of death are centered.

“By the next decade, I want to plan my health trajectory and life expectations better,” he wrote. “For that, I want my digital twin.”

  • The overall digital-twin market is predicted to climb at a compound annual growth rate of about 38% from 2019 and reach $30.1 billion by 2025, according to Meticulous Research. Driving the surge is the increased use of digital twins for predictive maintenance, the research firm said. 
  • The European and American research groups involved in the digital heart-twin project include teams from Harvard and Stanford in the U.S. and from the Universities of Sheffield and Bristol in the U.K., the Economist said. Companies involved include Ansys, a computer-simulation company, and General Electric, which makes jet engines and medical devices.