University of Pittsburgh's McGowan Institute receives IBM Shared University Research Award

Pittsburgh 02 December 2009The University of Pittsburgh's McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which connects scientists who work on tissue engineering, cell therapies, artificial organs and biodevices, has been awarded a Shared University Research (SUR) Award from IBM. The IBM SUR Award will provide IBM computer hardware, software and services to Pitt for its cutting-edge "in silico" biological research, which uses computer simulations to explore biological pathways and test therapeutic interventions.


Researchers at Pitt's McGowan Institute intend to use the IBM technology to open up new dimensions in biological modelling. The results of such research could significantly reduce the cost of new drug development and shorten the treatment evaluation process - getting treatments to the market faster and cheaper.

For example, the Pitt research team has simulated liver tissue to study how a chronic hepatitis infection can lead to liver cancer, lung tissues to study viral infection and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and skin to study how patients with spinal cord injuries develop pressure ulcers.

This type of advanced modelling can help researchers better understand basic biological processes and allows them to screen drugs and determine their impact on the body to uncover the best interventions for a broad range of diseases.

The principles of in silico modelling are similar to those used to generate the fantasy creatures of other worlds in movies, such as "Lord of the Rings" and the "Star Trek" series. At the University of Pittsburgh, researchers are building astonishingly realistic models of organs and diseases, and seeing molecular-level effects of drugs on them.

So instead of creating an imaginary character to fill out a battle scene, Pitt scientists are applying computational techniques to simulate, for example, inflamed liver cells morphing into cancer. That allows them to see not only how tumours develop, but how drugs or other interventions could affect disease progression.

Dr. Yoram Vodovotz, professor of surgery at Pitt's School of Medicine, director of the Center for Inflammation and Regenerative Modelling (CIRM) at the McGowan Institute, and principal investigator for the IBM SUR grant, is studying the role of immune system-regulated inflammatory pathways in a variety of conditions. Inflammation is involved in many, and perhaps most, diseases affecting both industrialized and developing societies.

"Dr. Vodovotz and the McGowan Institute are using IBM technology and computer simulations in support of groundbreaking regenerative medicine", stated Bernie Meyerson, vice president of innovation and global university programmes, IBM. "This award is yet another example of IBM and the University working to help build a smarter planet. The McGowan Institute's efforts are truly transformational, world-changing research."

Work carried out by the CIRM has had basic, translational, and commercial success, said Dr. Vodovotz. In silico modelling can so closely mimic reality that it can produce images that look much the same as the tissues that pathologists see under the microscope. "But to make the next set of quantum leaps, we require a computational foundation and related resources, which we call the Platform for Innovative Translational Modelling-Assisted Projects, or PITMAP", Dr. Vodovotz stated.

The computer technology, both hardware and software, will simulate the multitude of molecular interactions that occur both in normal tissues and those affected by disease or illness. "We aim to cover three bases: virtual clinical trials, personalized diagnostics and rational drug or device design", Dr. Vodovotz explained. "With these techniques, we could reduce the number of participants needed for human trials by creating some of them in silico; understand individual variation by exploring it in a digital world; and better visualize how the body responds when a drug or device enters it."

The IBM Power 575 water-cooled supercomputer, also known as the Hydro-Cluster, will allow the research team at the University of Pittsburgh's McGowan Institute to run high performance computing for their joint work with both the engineering and biosciences departments. Combined with specialized software from IBM, the Power 575 is designed to run computationally-intensive workloads, such as weather and climate modelling, physics, fluid dynamics and biological research, like the drug modelling being conducted at Pitt.

The Power 575 being deployed at Pitt currently features a single high-performance computing node running 32 POWER6 processor cores at 4.7GHz, expandable up to 448 cores per frame. Designed for speed and tuned for performance, the IBM supercomputer directs chilled coolant over the POWER6 processors to keep them running at peak intensity while helping to reduce energy costs.

The University of Pittsburgh's new Power 575 system will assist researchers working on projects in multiple geographic locations, using a Cloud computing interface. IBM also stocked the solution with WebSphere middleware, DB2 database software, Rational development software, and Cognos software for collaboration and data.

IBM's Shared University Research awards programme strives to connect the research and researchers at universities with IBM Research, IBM Life Sciences, IBM Global Services and IBM's development and product labs. The SUR Awards programme is designed to, among other things, increase access to and successful use of IBM technologies for research and in curriculum. More IBM news can be found in this VMW issue's article IBM financing agreements with electronic health care record providers shatter barriers to health IT adoption.

Source: IBM

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