Research at Nebraska 2021-2022 Report
Tomas Helikar

Virtual Immune System Could Aid Medicine

Before launching a rocket, scientists use a digital twin for test runs to optimize performance.

For researchers trying to develop new drugs and therapeutics, there’s no computer representation of the immune system – even though it’s one of the human body’s most complex “machines.”

Tomas Helikar, Susan J. Rosowski Associate Professor of Biochemistry, wants to change that. He’s developing a digital twin of the human immune system to better understand immune-related diseases and speed drug development.

His model could greatly reduce the time and cost of a drug’s journey from the lab to the marketplace, which often takes more than 10 years and roughly $1.3 billion.

“With a virtual immune system, you can simulate millions of different conditions, which you can do on a computer much cheaper and faster than you can do in the lab,” Helikar said.

The immune system’s complexity is challenging. It comprises organs, tissues, antibodies, cells, genes and more that influence the behavior of one another. Interactions happen across different scales: in different body parts, at different points in time and at different levels of organization.

The digital twin must connect these different scales, a daunting computational and mathematical task. Helikar demonstrated viability by developing a model focused on a single type of immune cell. He’s now working to incorporate more components into the model, which requires fast, efficient and cost-effective algorithms.

Helikar is collaborating with an international group of computational biologists, immunologists, clinicians, mathematicians and computer scientists. In 2022, he co-authored a paper in Nature Digital Medicine outlining a roadmap for success.

The ultimate goal is developing virtual twins of individual immune systems. That would open the door to precision medicine for many conditions including cancer, autoimmune diseases and viral infections like COVID-19.

Helikar’s inspiration is his 8-year-old son, who received a lung transplant as an infant. His immunosuppression drugs prevent organ rejection but hamper his immune system’s ability to fight other infections. His son’s experiences fuel Helikar’s research.

“As long as there’s a possibility that this can be done, if it can help my son, that’s my mission.”

A $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health funds this project.

+ Additional content for Virtual Immune System Could Aid Medicine

Nebraska news release: Husker researcher takes another step toward virtual immune system

Nebraska news release: Virtual immune system roadmap unveiled

Media mention: Son’s health issues fuel UNL researcher’s interest in building virtual immune system (Omaha World Herald, 2/28/2022)

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