Supercomputer seen helping to diagnose osteoporosis

IBM and Swiss scientists build intricate simulations using venerable BlueGene/L system

IBM and Swiss Federal Institute of Technology researchers are using an IBM BlueGene/L supercomputer to build intricate simulations of human bones, which could lead to earlier diagnoses of osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis, which literally means porous bone, is a disease that affects one in three women and one in five men over the age of 50. Caused by a loss of bone density, osteoporosis puts its victims at a high risk of bone fractures or breaks, and is a major cause of pain, disability and death in the elderly.

According to Alessandro Curioni, manager of computational sciences at the IBM Zurich Research Laboratory, osteoporosis racks up health costs second only to cancer.

Curioni told Computerworld that researchers are closing in on being able to make crucial early diagnoses because of the work they've been doing with the supercomputer.

"It's something quite important, especially because it impacts so many older women," he said. "Doctors need early diagnosis. Then they can try to slow down the process. The problem is that it's difficult to diagnose until it's advanced. To understand if you're at risk in the early stages is relatively difficult."

Traditionally, doctors often use special x-ray machines to diagnose the disease. They're only moderately accurate because bones have a sponge-like center, so it's difficult to determine their strength.

To devise a better method, scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich teamed up with researchers at IBM's Zurich Research Laboratory. Using complex and massively parallel simulations, researchers were able to get a clear image of a dynamic "heat map" of strain, which changes with the load applied to the bone. The map shows the doctor exactly where the bone is the weakest and where it is likely to fracture.

"We're not just looking at density but at the strain distribution in the bone," said Curioni. "You put a weight or stress on the bone and if the bone accumulates a huge amount of stress in one place, then there is a good chance it will break."

Using BlueGene/L, the research team was able to conduct the first simulations on a 5x5 mm piece of real bone. In just 20 minutes of computing time, the supercomputer simulation generated 90 Gigabytes of data, according to IBM.

The supercomputer is giving scientists the computational power to take their simulations from small pieces of bone to a full bone structure. "The added computational power is really needed to have a good description of the strain distribution for the whole structure. This is the first step to better diagnose [osteoporosis] at the early stage," said Curioni.

He estimated that within 10 years, desktop computers will have the power of today's supercomputers, making it easy for doctors to do bone strength simulations in their offices.

Curioni also noted that the improved diagnosis techniques can help patients who already have a broken bone, by helping doctors to find the strongest areas to place screws or pins when repairing the break.

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Sharon Gaudin

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