IBM, ETH supercomputing simulations could improve diagnosis of osteoporosis

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Using a Blue Gene supercomputer, scientists of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH) and the IBM Zurich Research Laboratory demonstrated an extensive simulation of real human bone structure, which could lead to better clinical tools to improve the diagnosis and treatment of osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis is currently diagnosed by measuring bone mass and density using specialized x-ray or CT techniques. Studies have shown, however, that bone mass measurements are only a moderately accurate way to determine the strength of the bone because bones are not solid structures, according to the scientists.

Scientists of the departments of mechanical and process engineering and computer science at ETH Zurich teamed up with supercomputing experts of IBM’s Zurich Research Laboratory. Their breakthrough method combines density measurements with a large-scale mechanical analysis of the inner-bone microstructure, IBM said.

Using large-scale, massively parallel simulations, the researchers said they were able to obtain a ‘heat map’ of strain, which changes with the load applied to the bone. The map shows the clinician where and under what load a bone is likely to fracture.

“Knowing when and where a bone is likely to fracture, a clinician can also detect osteoporotic damage more precisely and, by adjusting a surgical plate appropriately, can determine its optimal location,” explained Costas Bekas, MD, of IBM’s computational sciences team in Zurich.

Utilizing the large-scale capabilities of the eight-rack Blue Gene/L supercomputer, the research team said it was able to conduct the first simulations on a 5x5 mm specimen of real bone. In just 20 minutes of computing time, the supercomputer simulation generated 90 gigabytes of output data, according to the scientists. 

“It is this combination of increased speed and size that will allow solving clinically relevant cases in acceptable time and unprecedented detail,” said Ralph Müller, PhD, MD, the director of the Institute for Biomechanics at ETH Zürich.