Having Our Own Medical Avatar Could Transform Cancer Care and Space Travel

January 18, 2022

Merging Medicine and Art

On a day-to-day basis, LSU medical physics graduate student Megan Chesal might not feel like Leonardo da Vinci as she sits at her computer in her two-bedroom apartment in Baton Rouge, trying to understand the complex workings of the human body by creating highly intricate drawings. But she’s nevertheless following in his footsteps by using technology to describe biology.
 
Chesal develops human phantoms, which are computational 3D replicas of entire bodies. These virtual avatars can be used for medical research to help predict outcomes without having to experiment on living beings.
 
By combining physics, biology, art, and high-performance computing, Chesal’s long-term goal is to help fight cancer, which can be treated with radiation. More immediately, however, her focus is on space radiation, working on ways to protect astronauts and their equipment.
 
While Chesal makes her phantoms more detailed and anatomically correct, her collaborator and fellow student in the LSU SpaRTAN lab, Nousha Afshari, works to make them functionally correct, starting from the cell level. Their shared goal is to be able to custom-tailor phantoms for any person, regardless of gender, size, or shape.

Human phantom, sagittal view

The computational human phantoms developed in the LSU SpaRTAN lab are high-resolution renderings of human bodies, including blood, bone, organs, and tissues. One of the advantages of visualizing the whole body in 3D is to be able to safely study its dynamic response, interactions between tissues and organs, and slight differences between them.

– Megan Chesal / LSU

“Louisiana has some of the highest cancer mortality rates in the nation, so the need to advance care is critical in our state and beyond. Megan’s and Nousha’s work is key in the rapidly-growing science of precision medicine, which offers unprecedented opportunities to use increasingly detailed information to prevent, diagnose, and treat disease. It’s the future of cancer care.”

- Jonas Fontenot, Chief Operations Officer and Chief of Physics at Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center