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Saturday, 5 August 2017

My personal Laudatio of Peter Hunter

On July 18th, 2017 the University of Sheffield awarded an honorary degree in Engineering to Prof Peter Hunter, of the University of Auckland.  I was delighted when they told this would happen, as there are very few people who have been as influential as Peter in setting direction of my academic career. I was also frustrated that the rigid rule of the ceremony required that the Laudatory speech had to be given by a specific colleague, i.e. not me.

But the day before Peter kindly agreed to give a seminar to the Insigneo staff, and I took that occasion to  explain my colleagues, co-workers and students why Peter had been so important to me.  Here below is the notes I made for that speech; they tell also something about my own professional history.

Prof Peter Hunter graduated in Engineering Science at the university of Auckland, and then worked for a number of years at the University of Oxford with figures of the calliper of Prof Denis Noble, with whom he developed the first electromechanical model of the human heart.  He returned in Auckland in 1979, where in 2001 he established the Auckland Bioengineering Institute, which is today the most important research centre in the world for in silico medicine.  He published nearly 250 papers, is co-Editor in Chief of Biomechanics and Modeling in Mechanobiology, and has a list of honours  a kilometer long including an honorary professorship from University of Queensland, an Honorary fellowships from Institute of Professional Engineers of New Zealand, and an honorary Doctorate by University of Nottingham.

I started my career in biomechanics in 1989.  For the first 10 years, my only interest was orthopaedic biomechanics, in particular that of total hip replacement.  But as I started to broaden my interests to other musculoskeletal biomechanics problems, I also started to realise that something was wrong in the way we approached the modelling of the human body.

What was wrong was that we all used scale separation assumptions from general engineering that in physiology were not acceptable. But at that time that was not very clear to me, I just had this felling something new was required to move on.

In August 2002 I attended the Fourth World Congress on Biomechanics, at the University of Calgary, Canada.  One of the plenaries was from this tall Kiwi, I never heard of (for my ignorance of course because he was already as famous as a pop star in the bioengineering community).

As he explained his vision for a multiscale modelling of the human body, a computational biophysics and biochemistry approach to human physiology, suddenly the light struck me, much like Saint Paul on the way to Damascus: that was what I wanted to do.  Period.

Peter Hunter told us two things that day: the first is that scale separation does not apply, and we need to model the human body using multiscale models.  The second, much more important is that it is not madness to imagine an engineering approach to human physiology, where patient-specific computer models can predict biomarkers that are impossible or very difficult to measure directly.

But as I came out of the lecture room, I noticed that while a few were struck like me, many liquidated Peter’s vision as totally unrealistic.

I went home and for the following two years I ruminated on Peter’s talk.  And slowly  I started to form a line of action: first, Peter’s idea was so powerful that confining it to physiology was a vaste, we had to take it to pathology, and start using these models in the clinical practice. Second, before we could even speak of such idea, we have to form a community of practice, because most of the bioengineers, forget the clinicians, thought we were crazy.

In 2005, three years after I listen Peter for the first time, in a small meeting in Barcelona the term Virtual Physiological Human was coined. In 2006 we started the Europhysiome support action, which in 2007 delivered the VPH Research roadmap, starting a chain of events of which the establishment in Sheffield of the Insigneo Institute for in silico Medicine is one of the latest one.  And Peter has been my helmsman, my guide, my inspiration, and in a few occasions my psychotherapist for 15 years.  And more important he has been, and will always be my friend.

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