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Supercomputer simulates bone structure to tackle osteoporosis

IBM and scientists of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH) have demonstrated an extensive simulation of real human bone structures.

The simulation was made using the IBM Blue Gene supercomputer. The method combines density measurements with a large-scale mechanical analysis of the inner-bone microstructure.

The partners said the bone structure simulation could lead to better clinical tools to improve the diagnosis and treatment of osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a widespread disease that affects one in three women and one in five men over the age of 50.

Using large-scale, parallel simulations, the researchers obtained a dynamic "heat map" of strain, which changes with the load applied to the bone. This map shows exactly where and under what load a bone is likely to fracture.

The early detection of osteoporosis can prevent its progress. The simulation could allow orthopaedic clinicians to better treat fractures and analyse and detect osteoporotic fragility. This would allow orthopaedic doctors to take preventative measures before osteoporosis advances.

"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," said Dr Costas Bekas of IBM's Computational Sciences team in Zurich. "This work is an excellent example of the dramatic potential that supercomputers can have for our everyday lives."

Osteoporosis is the most widespread bone disease worldwide, affecting 75m people in the US, Europe and Japan alone. The health costs the disease incurs are second only to cardiovascular diseases, said the partners.

Osteoporosis is diagnosed by measuring bone mass and density using specialised X-ray or computer tomography techniques, a highly empirical process.

Studies have shown, however, that bone mass measurements are not a very accurate way to determine the strength of the bone because bones are not solid structures.

Inside the compact outer shell, bones have a sponge-like centre. This complex microstructure accounts for the bone's capability to bear loads and therefore represents a better indicator of a bone's strength.

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