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Using ‘human digital twins’ and a ‘nudge’ to explore a new paradigm in diabetes care

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Associate Professor Arindam Basu

Associate Professor Arindam Basu

The Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) is funding exploratory research into the use of ‘human digital twins’ and artificial intelligence aimed at reversing Type 2 diabetes.

A Human Digital Twin (HDT) is a digital replica of a physical human, designed to predict and test individual responses to different interventions and lifestyle changes. 

Associate Professor Arindam Basu from the University of Canterbury has been awarded a $150,000 Explorer Grant for the development and validation of a model that he says could transform the management of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus. This work is among 20 potentially transformative research studies, across a range of disciplines, announced today by the HRC.  

Dr Basu says fresh thinking is needed to address diabetes, which now affects 270,000 New Zealanders and continues to rise despite robust public health efforts. He believes a transformative approach to Type 2 Diabetes involves moving from a ‘reactive mode’ to a proactive mode of care.

“There is now evidence that this condition is reversible if detected in its early stages, with measures such as weight reduction, lifestyle modifications, stress reduction, and exercise.” 

He adds that better diabetes management will not only help individuals and prevent complications, but also bring major cost savings for healthcare in Aotearoa New Zealand.

With his Explorer Grant, Dr Basu aims to reduce the need for hospital treatment of diabetes by giving patients tighter control of their condition in primary care settings and at home.

He and his team aim to develop a machine learning model whereby anonymised data, made up of relevant physiological characteristics, is continually passed between an individual and a computer-based ‘digital twin’. This data would be transferred via sensors or bluetooth-enabled devices such as a glucometer, smart watch, or mobile phone. The digital twin would then be able to monitor and assess the individual’s blood glucose levels and instantly identify actionable steps to help keep their diabetes at a ‘completely manageable level’.

While this technology is already being used in areas such as heart disease and anaesthesia, Dr Basu’s team will also test the use of action-orientated ‘nudges’, via a virtual reality avatar, to bring about the behavioural changes required in patients. 

“We’re talking about giving individuals ‘just in time’ advice, which is highly contextualised and personalised,” he says. “We anticipate that ‘nudging’ in the form of a believable and convincing HDT, will help users make more deliberate and better choices related to Type 2 Diabetes and relevant lifestyle factors.”

He says combining HDT with nudge technology is not business as usual. “We are testing new approaches and novel hypothesis with this research. We are asking how we might train a deep supervised learning model – based on literature and observational health data – to then use these insights and generate messages that influence human behaviour.”

Dr Basu believes HDT technology forms the cornerstone of personalised medicine, and this research will test its potential use in precision prevention. “With continuous information and feedback from a digital twin, decision-making will be simplified for individuals, allowing them to make informed choices in the present moment.” 

The HRC’s chief executive, Professor Sunny Collings, says this research embodies the intent of the Explorer Grant funding round – a great launching pad for innovative thinking. 

“Testing different approaches and harnessing the power of new technologies can be game-changing for health. This research has the potential to shift people’s behaviour, and to rethink how we manage conditions like diabetes across primary and secondary care.” 

She adds that the HRC has this year awarded a record number of Explorer Grants, helping build momentum and capability for innovation in the health and science sectors. “Increasing support for transformative, higher-risk research helps increase the chances of major positive impact and possible economic returns for New Zealand.” 

See below for the full list of 2024 Explorer Grant recipients. To read lay summaries of the recipients’ research projects, go to and filter for ‘Explorer Grants’ by year ‘2024’. 

Recipients of the HRC’s 2024 Explorer Grants

Professor Nick Draper, University of Canterbury
Collisions in Junior Rugby: Incidence and magnitude and potential health effect
24 months, $150,000

Dr Sheng Chiong Hong, oDocs Eye Care
Cultured Corneal Endothelial Cells for Endothelial Failure
24 months, $150,000

Dr Merel Hoskens, University of Waikato
Better rehabilitation: Integration of movement analogies in Māori storytelling
24 months, $150,000

Associate Professor Haizal Hussaini, University of Otago
Retaining teeth for life: a smart stimuli-response dental pulp medication
24 months, $150,000

Dr Ying Jin, Massey University
Feasibility study of feeding time-matched donor human milk to preterm infants
24 months, $150,000

Dr Marina Kazantseva, University of Otago
Exploring the potential of the noncoding genome in lung disease diagnostics
24 months, $150,000

Dr William Kelton, University of Waikato
Self-signalling mRNA vaccines for sustained antibody immunity
24 months, $150,000

Dr Kunyu Li, University of Otago
Using super-wideband microwave technology to improve cancer early diagnosis
24 months, $150,000

Dr Samantha Marsh, The University of Auckland
A hyper-local approach to addressing low immunisation coverage
24 months, $150,000

Associate Professor Ailsa McGregor, University of Otago
Preventing the ups and downs of lithium in bipolar disorder
24 months, $150,000

Dr Narun Pat, University of Otago
Using multimodal MRI, genomics and AI to tackle ethnicity bias in neuroimaging
24 months, $150,000

Associate Professor Mattie Timmer, Research Trust of Victoria University of Wellington
Positively selecting your MAIT Cells
24 months, $150,000

Dr Chelsea Vickers, Research Trust of Victoria University of Wellington
Development of novel prebiotics from marine glycans
24 months, $150,000

Dr Olga Zubkova, Research Trust of Victoria University of Wellington
Scalable heparan sulfate mimetics as dual-mechanism antiviral agents
24 months, $150,000

Associate Professor Arindam Basu, University of Canterbury
Development and validation of Human Digital Twins for reversing Type II Diabetes
24 months, $150,000

Associate Professor Sara Filoche, University of Otago
Building room for equity: Culture-centred design of hospital waiting rooms
24 months, $150,000

Dr Thomas Mules, Malaghan Institute of Medical Research
Molecular testing for antibiotic resistance in Helicobacter pylori
24 months, $150,000

Associate Professor Vili Nosa, The University of Auckland
Health Promotion Interventions for Pacific men in a Barbershop
24 months, $150,000

Ms Kahurangi Dey, Research Trust of Victoria University of Wellington
Scoping pae ora with Māori communities and tāne Māori after a DTP in prison
12 months, $150,000

Ms Kaewa Savage, The Centre for Health
Strengthening how people reconnect to the environment for the health of the plan
24 months, $150,000