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IBM supercomputer to aid osteoporosis treatment

Using a Blue Gene Supercomputer, IBM and ETH Zurich labs say they have come up a new way to diagnose the widespread bone disease.

IBM says it has developed a way to use one of its supercomputers to improve diagnosis and treatment of the widespread bone disease osteoporosis.

IBM Zurich Research Laboratory and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (also known as ETH Zurich) utilized an IBM supercomputer to develop a method of early diagnosis that they say trumps the current approach to measuring bone mass density, the computer company announced Monday.

According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, the current most widely recognized bone mass density test is conducted by a dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry, or DXA. However, the test cannot measure the spongy inner microstructure of the bone.

A digital image produced by the Blue Gene Supercomputer.
This digital image produced by the Blue Gene Supercomputer shows the strain on a healthy 5x5x5 millimeter human vertebra. The areas in blue support a higher strain and weaker parts are shown in red. IBM Zurich Research Laboratory

IBM's new method will combine density measurements with a mechanical analysis of the inner-bone structure. By using large-scale parallel simulations and testing real bone, researchers created a heat map of bone strain that can show physicians the likely weight load that would cause a bone to break and where the fracture would occur.

The teams used an 8-rack Blue Gene/L Supercomputer to conduct the simulations. IBM said the computer takes just 20 minutes to generate 90 gigabytes of output data. Currently, IBM dominates the supercomputer world, and makes 210 of the top 500 supercomputer systems.

While supercomputers aren't currently readily available to physicians, IBM's Zurich lab says that 10 years from now the performance of a supercomputer should be available on a desktop system, and the technology will become a staple in diagnosing the bone density-deteriorating disease.

IBM Zurich and ETH Zurich said the labs have future plans to use supercomputer technology to simulate the formation of fractures for individual patients with osteoporosis. The disease affects 75 million people around the world, according to the International Osteoporosis Foundation.