Thomas HughesThe University of A Coruña, Galicia, Spain awarded Professor Thomas J.R. Hughes an honorary doctorate in civil engineering, citing him as a “father of computational mechanics” and a “great builder of bridges…among the scientists of all nations, between academia and industry, and between engineering, medicine and the worlds of computer-aided design and advanced visualization.”

As part of the ceremony, Hughes, professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics, gave a talk on moving the medical profession’s paradigm from diagnostic to predictive, more closely aligning it with the engineer’s perspective.

“Both are problem-solving disciplines. However, in engineering there is an attempt to accurately predict the performance of a product or procedure. The entire design process is based upon predicted outcomes,” Hughes said. “Lack of a predictive process is referred to in engineering as the “build them and bust them” approach. It is not satisfactory in engineering, and it should not be satisfactory in medicine.”

Fortunately Hughes told the international crowd, “it seems medicine may be about to change, primarily because of the emergence of medical imaging technology, already the most important tool for diagnosing cardiovascular disease, but with even greater future potential. Medical imaging promises to do for the practice of medicine what the telescope did for astronomy and the microscope did for biology.”

Hughes discussed his own work to develop patient-specific modeling and analysis technologies. These are designed to enable clinicians to craft cardiovascular therapies optimized for each individual, and to evaluate interventions for efficacy and possible side effects before they are performed.

“Imagine a future when a patient is told not only of having 'high cholesterol,' a systemic measure of statistical significance,” explained Hughes, “but rather, after routine imaging and analysis, is told, although there is no discernible blockage now, exactly where an occlusion will eventually occur in a coronary artery, and is given a precise prediction of how it will develop as a function of time, and when it will become critical. Given this information, a comprehensive treatment plan could be developed to prevent it from actually occurring.”

He closed his speech with the optimistic prediction that “the predictive paradigm may well represent a milestone in the history of engineering and medicine, and one that may have significant benefit for the health and welfare of humanity.”

Hughes is affiliated with the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences (ICES) and holds the Computational and Applied Mathematics Chair III Professorship.