Sheffield University computer cluster to help heart health and cancer patients

Sheffield 17 June 2004A new computer cluster funded by the University of Sheffield and located within the Royal Hallamshire Hospital, will help scientists to improve their understanding of how human cells and organs work. This will ultimately lead to more effective ways of treating cardiovascular disease and cancer as well as other diseases. It will also eventually allow doctors to tailor treatment in a way specific to that patient rather than a "one-size-fits-all" approach.


Two of the current uses for the computer are the development of new technologies to increase the effectiveness of drug delivery and improving the accuracy of radiotherapy treatment. On a more fundamental level the computer is being used to establish how cells interact and "self-assemble" to become a particular tissue or organ. This second study will have an impact on our understanding of a variety of organ functions as well as improving our understanding of the behaviour of cancers, cell turnover and wound repair.

Professor Rod Smallwood, who was instrumental in obtaining funding for the cluster and is running the project on human cell assembly, explained why the new system is important. "The power of the computer cluster will allow us to use real patient data to produce advanced computational models that can test a variety of hypotheses, without the need to perform difficult and expensive experiments in the laboratory. Predictive models can be developed at all levels from gene expression to organ function."

"For example, we can tell the computer the exact biological conditions present when a cell becomes malignant. We can then produce a model of this situation, so that we can see what would happen if one of the conditions was altered, and whether that would prevent the malignancy from occurring. Basing the computer inside the Hospital allows us to use these techniques on patient data without compromising the security of that data", Professor Smallwood stated.

Drs. Rodney Hose and Pat Lawford of the University's Medical Physics group, are using the cluster to create models that simulate the cardiovascular system. Using data from medical images, the specific anatomy of an individual patient can be modelled. Dr. Hose explained: "Computational tools, developed together with other academic partners and industry under the European funded research initiatives Simbio, Bloodsim and GEMSS, allow us to examine the cardiovascular system in detail and investigate how the shape of the heart and blood vessels and the speed of blood flow influence disease. These models will help us to design improved medical devices and to predict how the patient could respond to treatment."

Dr. John Fenner, also of the University's Medical Physics group, is working with colleagues of the British National Health Service (NHS) in the Radiosurgery Department to investigate the way the cluster can be used to improve the accuracy of radiotherapy treatment by using advanced computational models to model the way gamma rays interact with tissue. This joint Trust/University project has European funding and is part of a drive to identify uses for high performance computers in routine clinical practice as well as medical research.

Professor David Barber, Scientific Director of the Sheffield Teaching Hospital's Department of Medical Imaging and Medical Physics, stated: "The cluster will allow us, working with our academic colleagues, to develop new cost effective ways of treating and managing disease. It demonstrates very well the benefits of NHS and University staff working as partners on research and development projects. By bringing together fundamental ideas and practical concerns we can improve provision of health care to patients."

Leslie Versweyveld

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