June 10, 2021
The concept of in silico experimentation — or research performed on a computer — is capturing the imagination of the global biomedical community. By replicating disease progression, predicting surgical outcomes or studying the efficacy of various drug therapies in a simulated virtual environment, researchers can develop more effective treatment strategies and maximize patient outcomes, with no risks to human or animal subjects.
“Very soon, I believe it will be considered unethical to fail to use in silico methods for biomedical research,” predicts Dr. Liesbet Geris, Research Professor in Biomechanics and Computational Tissue Engineering at the University of Liège and KU Leuven in Belgium. Geris is a long-time user of Ansys solutions in her research, which focuses on bone and cartilage regeneration, computational tissue engineering and the design of orthopedic implants that can be 3D printed on demand.
“Given the enormous benefits of the in silico approach, and the increasing accuracy of modeling and simulation tools, there will be a reduced need to incorporate humans or animals into our experiments,” Geris explains. “We will be able to move faster, more confidently and more cost-effectively toward research discoveries by using advanced simulation tools than we would using traditional in vitro and in vivo approaches.”
According to Geris, one of the primary benefits of in silico experimentation is the ability to create customized models that reflect a specific patient. “Every human body is distinct in its geometry, movements and behaviors,” notes Geris. “By creating a patient-specific simulation, we can predict how a proposed treatment plan will work not just in a generalized way, but in some cases also for a specific person. This is a revolutionary concept that has the potential to fundamentally change the way we treat patients in a medical setting.”
Geris, who is the Executive Director of the Virtual Physiological Human Institute (VPHi), is at the forefront of this revolution. In her position with VPHi, she proactively advocates the use of in silico modeling in healthcare through collaboration with the clinical community, the European Commission and Parliament, and regulatory agencies such as the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Geris is the youngest-ever Executive Director of VHPi, and the first woman to hold this position.
While Geris is a prominent and highly respected member of the global biomedical community, she had to overcome many gender-based stereotypes along the way.
“When I had to choose a study direction, in Belgium, girls who were interested in science and math were typically encouraged to be doctors, because their ‘soft’ side and stereotypically feminine traits would be a benefit in interacting with patients,” she notes. “Boys were encouraged to follow an engineering path. The outdated view, which is still prevalent though luckily less and less, is that engineers build bridges ― and that’s a masculine activity.”
Far from being deterred by this gender bias, Geris saw it as a challenge. “My attitude toward pursuing an engineering career was: ‘You say girls can’t do this? I’ll show you!’ I was determined to forge my own path, even though the odds seemed against me,” she says. Geris also had a wonderful role model in her mother, a mathematician who encouraged her daughter to resist any gender-based constraints.
Degradation over time of a magnesium plate. The color contour shows the concentration of Mg ions being released to the surrounding medium. Courtesy: Mojtaba Barzegari
Degradation over time of a magnesium screw showing the degrading shape of the screw (white body) and its initial shape (transparent surface). Courtesy: Mojtaba Barzegari
But the path was not always easy. As an undergraduate earning a combined bachelor/masters degree in Mechanical Engineering (option mechatronics) at KU Leuven, Geris was one of only 11 women in a class of 90. “I did not see my fellow female students often, but when we gathered to talk, it always caused a sort of commotion in the hallway,” recalls Geris. “Doors would open. People would stop to look. It was almost as if they were saying, ‘What are these women doing here?’ It was as if we constantly needed to prove we belonged there.”
Geris distinguished herself by winning numerous graduate student awards, earning her doctoral degree at KU Leuven in 2007, and joining the faculty at the University of Liège in 2009. Her long list of accomplishments and recognitions, both as a student and a faculty member, can be found here.
While the number of women pursuing engineering careers in Belgium may have increased since Geris was a student, today women make up just 12% of the engineering workforce there, similar to diversity statistics for the US.
What is the key to attracting more women to the field? Geris believes that one important aspect is changing the overall perception of engineering as a career. “Unfortunately, we still have that stereotypical view that engineers build bridges, and that boys are more skilled at that. Boys play with blocks and Lego as children, while girls still are encouraged to play with dolls. Not only do we need to overcome these types of early bias, and encourage girls to take STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) classes at an early age, but we also need to educate both genders about the true nature of engineering.”
A pivotal moment for Geris came when she visited a college engineering program as a high school student. “I expected to see men in hard hats, but instead I saw a team of people working in a lab, as a team, to solve problems,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do. I want to work with other people and arrive at solutions together that benefit society.’ It was so amazing and so unlike my own concept of engineering. I knew I’d found my calling.”
Neotissue growth (pink) inside a titanium 3D-printed scaffold during culture in a perfusion bioreactor. Colored arrows indicate flow velocity. The two situations that are modeled differ only in the placement of the scaffold inside the bioreactor chamber (Guyot et al., BMMB 2016).
In her own research group at the University of Liège, Geris encourages diversity not just based on gender, but also based on race, nationality and other personal characteristics. “The more diverse our viewpoints, the more creatively we can approach research challenges,” she notes. “It’s always valuable to bring many different perspectives to bear on a problem.”
Ongoing advances in Ansys simulation software are making it much easier for Geris and her research team to replicate biological processes, such as medium flows through scaffolds in bioreactors, that are critical to her work. “We are getting closer and closer to ensuring that every research team and every clinical team, is using simulation and in silico models to simulate biological processes, predict patients’ biological responses to treatment and significantly improve outcomes. I’m proud to take a leadership role in encouraging the adoption of computer simulation in the global medical community.”