Professor Schrefler, you say that the human body can be compared to concrete. What do you mean?
Concrete, like human tissue, is a porous structure—meaning a solid object with pores in which gases and fluids move. This means that certain standard models for studying such structures can be transposed from one material onto the other. It is merely the respective exchange processes that change.
How did you reach this conclusion?
By looking beyond the horizon of my own discipline. Americans call this thinking outside the box. In 2010, when I was working at the University of Texas at Austin, colleagues of mine from the Medical School showed me a new model for prostate tumors. I told them: I’ve been solving the equations of your model for twenty years.
What were you thinking at the moment?
Eureka! I’ve got it! I knew straightaway that my path was going to take me into medicine now. Shortly thereafter, I went to Houston and met the director of the Houston Methodist Research Institute—and I promised him that I would improve his research. He believed me and hired me.
Since then you’ve been researching the extent to which the behaviors of fluid materials in physics can be transferred to the flow behaviors of compounds to treat cancer.
One of the things that is critical for successful treatment is that the medications arrive exactly where they are needed. In my project, I’ve been working closely with Professor Wolfgang Wall from the Institute for Computational Mechanics at the Technical University of Munich. He is currently putting together a model of the currents in the blood vessels, the bio-distribution, that is more precise than before. With the assistance of this type of general model, we can then calculate how a medication spreads throughout the body.
And this basic model will then be combined with your results?
Exactly, that’s when we add the concrete to it, so to speak. We’re very familiar with its flow properties. We’re attempting to simulate how much of a drug actually arrives at a tumor in the end and, for instance, how much gets lost due to the immune system or from diffusion in the tumor’s immediate vicinity. This is the step that connects engineering mechanics and medicine—a step into the future.
You will be celebrating your seventy-fifth birthday in just a few months. What do you find appealing about breaking new ground with basic research at an age where most people would have long since retired?
Precisely because I’m getting older, I’m very pleased when I can advance something that benefits humankind. Aside from which, it’s always wonderful to investigate a field of application in a way that wasn’t previously possible.
You actually conduct research at the University of Padova, but are also at the Technical University of Munich. Your residence there as part of the Hans Fischer Senior Fellowship has been made possible by the TÜV SÜD Foundation. What does this Visiting Fellowship mean for you?
The fellowship sponsored by the TÜV SÜD Foundation gives me the freedom to continue researching. As I said, you have to think outside the box, meet new, young people, experience new influences—that’s what the fellowship offers me. In addition, I can attend many interesting and important conferences around the world. All of these things make it easier for me and are a great support. I enjoy being in Munich three months out of the year. The interaction and communication undoubtedly advance the colleagues here just as much as at my university in Italy.