IBM Supercomputer at Johns Hopkins to search for roots of heart and brain disease

Baltimore 10 January 2000At the end of last year, Johns Hopkins University has installed an RS/6000 SP supercomputer in its Center for Imaging Science at the Whiting School of Engineering to help find cures for diseases of the heart and brain via image analysis. Specifically, Johns Hopkins researchers will utilise the IBM system to try to discover why, so often, the brain degenerates with age, and what exactly causes illnesses, such as schizophrenia and dementia. In addition, researchers hope to find out how heart attacks can be avoided by testing different medication combinations on heart models in pre-arrhythmia condition.


The researchers will use IBM's deep computing technologies to construct 3D interactive computer models on the RS/6000 SP describing the body's anatomical structure and physiological behaviour. These models span from the model of a single gene up to the composite intricacies of organs, like the heart and brain. They may provide scientists with a better understanding of the relationships between microscopic structures and organ functions in both healthy and diseased brains and hearts. By conducting this pioneering research, scientists will seek to design new drugs and therapies, in order to help physicians and patients battle major organ disease. Using the RS/6000 SP, researchers aim at reducing research times and bringing drug therapies to market sooner.

"The RS/6000 SP supercomputing technology will allow us to analyse and access brain images from large numbers of individuals in databases, which provides an opportunity to make precise statistical statements about the onset of diseases related to the human brain", said Michael Miller, Director of the Center for Imaging Science at Johns Hopkins. This has not been possible until now because of the sheer complexity of the analysis, as Michael Miller stated.

Because of the human body's complexity and the enormous volume of data involved, computer modelling is currently emerging as both a powerful and necessary tool in understanding various cellular and tissue relationships, according to Dr. Raimond Winslow, head of the Center for Computational Medicine and Biology, a branch of the Whitaker Biomedical Engineering Institute. With computerised simulations, science is gaining understanding about the functions and processes of the human heart, and saving lives by managing the threat of heart attack and disease, as Dr. Winslow continued.

As part of the research programme, Dr. Miller and his colleagues will also have access to the IBM RS/6000 SP of NPACI, the National Partnership for Advanced Computational Infrastructure at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC), that was expected to be capable of one teraflop performance by the end of 1999. The system will have more than 1000 microprocessors and will be one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world. Computer modelling will be performed at both facilities, with the more computationally intensive work being done at SDSC.

Authorised researchers from around the world are invited to access SDSC's IBM supercomputer via the Internet. In this way, scientists at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), the Washington University, and Cal Tech can generate tissue samples, have them analysed by algorithms from Johns Hopkins, and distribute them nationwide through SDSC's Supercomputer Center. SDSC's supercomputing power combined with our own RS/6000 SP will allow us to pool the expertise and data of numerous investigators and labs all around the world, according to Dr. Miller. "Such a collaborative effort, with its rapid information exchange, can only help researchers make great strides against modern-day diseases."

SDSC is a research unit of the University of California at San Diego and a national laboratory for computational science and engineering. It is also the leading edge site of the U.S. National Science Foundation's (NSF) National Partnership for Advanced Computational Infrastructure (NPACI), which was established to build the environment for tomorrow's scientific discovery.

The recently formed $34 million Whitaker Biomedical Engineering Institute was established by Johns Hopkins University in part with a grant from the Whitaker Foundation. Using computer imaging technology, some researchers at the institute will bring together two inherently different disciplines, which are computer engineering and biological research to advance medical science and the understanding of both human cellular and physiological functions and relationships.

The RS/6000 SP is the foundation of high performance computing, as stated by Rod Adkins, general manager, IBM RS/6000. "It is able to provide the world's major research centres with mathematical algorithms, computing power, performance, speed and scalability, all which they need to tackle the most important scientific puzzles of our time. Thus, IBM's high performance computing technology is revolutionising medical research."

Over 850.000 IBM RS/6000 systems were shipped to more than 125.000 commercial and technical customers around the world. The RS/6000 family of computers features IBM RISC-based microprocessors and runs the AIX, IBM's UNIX operating system. RS/6000 products range in size and capacity from workstations, workgroup and enterprise servers, to the RS/6000 SP supercomputer. Ranging from businesses deploying advanced technologies to become more efficient and profitable, to governments and universities seeking to solve the grand challenge problems of our time, the RS/6000 computers support a wide range of applications and provide the reliability, availability and price/performance that today's information technology managers demand.

Leslie Versweyveld

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