MEI Lab and NCVC: Building a Healthy Future on a Strong Foundation

NTT Research works on a lengthy time horizon. Not bounded by quarterly earnings, we can set long-range goals. We tend to broker multi-year agreements with universities that enjoy similar freedom; and in the case of our Medical & Health Informatics (MEI) Lab, we recently announced an agreement with a semi-independent national institution, Japan’s National Cerebral and Cardiovascular Center (NCVC).

This agreement with the NCVC surrounding our Cardiovascular Bio Digital Twin (CV BioDT) initiative illustrates another aspect of basic research: its time horizon can also stretch backward. Research is often aligned with previous academic work and reflects the influence of advisors or mentors whose own research may have broken ground in years past. Again, that is the case with the NCVC project, whose primary investigators are Dr. Keita Saku, Laboratory Chief for NCVC’s Department of Cardiovascular Dynamics, and Dr. Joe Alexander, Distinguished Scientist in NTT Research’s MEI Lab.

Instrumental in creating and now helping to guide this project is Dr. Kenji Sunagawa, professor emeritus in the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at the Graduate School of Medical Sciences, Kyushu University. A path-breaking medical researcher with approximately 750 publications to his name, Dr. Sunagawa had opportunities earlier in his career to train both Dr. Saku and Dr. Alexander, the latter at NCVC, Kyushu University and Johns Hopkins University, whose faculty Dr. Sunagawa joined in 1978. His seminal work over the following years helped establish the pressure-volume relationship of the heart, one of the most basic concepts of ventricular mechanics. Another member of the MEI Lab, Dr. Jon Peterson has his own connection to this influential academic. While studying electrical engineering at Cornell University, Peterson was inspired by a guest lecture from Dr. Sagawa – legendary Johns Hopkins mentor and host, ultimately, to all three (Drs. Sunagawa, Peterson and Alexander) – to pursue advanced studies in biomedical engineering.

Dr. Sunagawa returned to Japan in 1983, took a leadership role at the NCVC and later joined the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at Kyushu University. His extensive application of engineering concepts to cardiac mechanics and cardiovascular neural regulation is highly relevant to the collaboration between the MEI Lab and NCVC, which began in October 2020 and extends through March 2023. The research plan envisions the MEI Lab developing physician and patient-oriented CV BioDT applications, with the NCVC working on computational engines. But in the near term, the two organizations will work together, co-developing causal, mathematical models of underlying physiology and pathophysiology in support of CV BioDT representations and ultimate management of acute myocardial infarction (AMI) and acute heart failure (HF).

The CV BioDT initiative will extend well beyond 2023, and the broader vision of a digital twin that encompasses multiple physiological systems will take even more years to realize. But at the start of a long journey, recalling breakthroughs and learnings of the past provides useful context. And with so high a goal, it helps to have a deep foundation.