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INRIA Researcher Wins Royal Society and Académie des sciences Microsoft Award
By Rob Knies
September 18, 2008 1:00 AM PT

Nicholas Ayache has a vision. He foresees a world in which analysis of biological images can contribute to medical treatment plans to help patients regain their lost health.

It’s an ambitious, noble goal, one he has been pursuing for two decades. Over that span, he has excelled as a researcher, an academic, an author, an editor, a conference chair. His has been a rich and varied career.

On Sept. 18, Ayache, now research director at the Sophia Antipolis - Méditerranée center of INRIA, the French national institute for research in computer science and automatic control, was announced as the recipient of this year’s Royal Society and Académie des sciences Microsoft Award, a prestigious honor sponsored by Microsoft Research.

“Professor Ayache’s outstanding research in the field of biomedical imaging and analysis has led to breakthroughs which help to better prevent, diagnose, and treat diseases,” said Andrew Herbert, managing director of Microsoft Research Cambridge.”It’s an impressive example of the vital role computer science can play in helping us to tackle some of the world’s most pressing challenges. We place great importance on supporting leading European scientists such as Professor Ayache, who are pushing the boundaries of computing and science, and one way in which we do this is through the Microsoft Award.”

The honor, designed to recognize and reward scientists working in Europe who have a made a major contribution to the advancement of science through the use of computation, was open to nominations this year for research scientists who have excelled at the intersection of computing and the biological sciences.

The award officially will be presented to Ayache in London on Oct. 20 during a prestigious ceremony at the Royal Society.

Nicholas Ayache
Nicholas Ayache (Photo © Loran Dherines)

For Ayache, the award represents the culmination of the work he has pursued throughout his professional career—and is another step along a path he expects will lead to tremendous advances in patient diagnosis and treatment.

“My goal,” he said, “is to create, from the medical images of any patient, a series of computational models of his or her organs and pathologies to create a personalized ‘virtual patient’ model.’ “

Not only does Ayache want to provide such models, he also wants to see them put to effective use.

“The medical objective,” he explained, “is to make this ‘virtual patient’ model realistic enough to increase the potential for early diagnosis and also to plan and simulate several therapeutic strategies to select the most efficient one.

“This prize will give me and my research team the possibility to improve some of our key models in terms of realism and speed, in particular for the simulation of certain brain tumors and cardiac diseases.”

While with INRIA, Ayache served as scientific leader of the EPIDAURE research group on medical image analysis and robotics from 1993 to 2005. He is currently leader of the ASCLEPIOS research group on biomedical image analysis and simulation, a role he has held since November 2005.

In addition, he teaches graduate courses in computer vision and medical imaging at École Centrale Paris and École normale supérieure de Cachan. He has been a scientific consultant for a number of industrial companies and international research institutes and has participated in the creation of several startup companies in image processing, computer vision, and biomedical imaging.

Such a background has won Ayache acclaim far and wide. In December 2006, he received the Grand Prize of Information Sciences and Applications from the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EADS) Foundation and the Académie des sciences. In October 2007, he was named Researcher of the Year by the journal Le nouvel Economiste.

Andrew Blake, principal researcher at Microsoft Research Cambridge and head of that lab’s Computer Vision group, is certainly aware of Ayache’s contributions.

“Professor Ayache has been a pioneer in moving on the analysis of medical images,” Blake said, “from simply treating images as signals to mining them for statistical and geometric information.

“I believe this will bring about a revolution in the quality of the information that can be extracted by clinicians from diagnostic images.”

Receiving the 2008 Microsoft Award will only further that cause. The award, open to research scientists and engineers of any nationality who have resided in Europe for at least 12 months, consists of a trophy—and €250,000, of which €7,500 represents prize money and the remainder is earmarked for further research.

Ayache becomes the third winner of the award, first presented in November 2006 to Dennis Bray of the University of Cambridge, for his research using innovative computer simulations of biological systems.

Giorgio Parisi, professor at the University of Rome “La Sapienza,” won the 2007 Microsoft Award, for his contribution in the fields of quantum chromodynamics and spin glasses.

Ayache received his Ph.D. in 1983 and his Thèse d’État in 1988, both in computer science, from the University of Paris XI. While there, he focused on the development of vision capabilities for autonomous robots, specifically on model-based object recognition, passive stereovision, and multisensor fusion.

Since 1988, his work has centered on biomedical image analysis and simulation, including analysis of medical and biological images with advanced geometrical, statistical, physical, and functional models; simulation of physiological systems with computational models built from biomedical images and other signals; and the application of these tools to medicine and biology to improve disease prevention, diagnosis, and therapy. He also has helped design innovative systems for surgery simulation and image-guided therapy.

Ayache is also an accomplished author and editor. He has written or co-wriitten more than 200 scientific publications related to his work. Among his many editorial achievements, he is author of the book Artificial Vision for Mobile Robots and editor of the book Computational Models for the Human Body, a special volume of the series Handbook of Numerical Analysis.

With regard to scientific journals, he is the co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Medical Image Analysis, an associate editor of Transactions on Medical Imaging, and a member of the editorial board for Computer Assisted Surgery, Medical Imaging Technology, and Mathematical Modelling and Numerical Analysis.

In addition, he has served as associate editor of the International Journal of Computer Vision, advisory editor of Videre, the journal of computer-vision research, and associate editor of IEEE Transactions on Robotics and Automation.

Ayache also has been active in scientific conferences. He chaired the first International Conference on Computer Vision, Virtual Reality, and Robotics in Medicine, held in Nice, France, in April 1995, and in 2003, he served as co-chair of the First Symposium on Surgery Simulation and Soft Tissue Modeling. In 2007, he acted as program chair of the Medical Image Computing and Computer Assisted Intervention conference. And he has served on the editorial board for several major conferences in medical imaging, computer vision, visualization, and robotics.

Since 2007, Ayache has been a member of the steering committee of the National Research Program on Imaging of the Institute national de la santé et de la recherché médicale, the only French public research body entirely dedicated to human health.