National Institutes of Health awards $8.5 million for biomedical research

The National Institutes of Health recently awarded the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC) an $8.5 million grant for biomedical research. The grant extends support of the National Resource for Biomedical Supercomputing (NRBSC) for an additional five years.

For the last 20 years, the NRBSC has contributed to the field of biomedical research through simulation work on supercomputing networks. According to the group’s website, the NRBSC “pursues leading-edge research in high-performance computing and the life sciences.”

PSC scientific co-director Ralph Roskies stated in a press release that “for 20 years, the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center has provided national leadership in applying advanced computational resources to biomedical research.”

And their computational resources are vast. Currently, internal projects make up three main areas: volumetric data browsing, realistic cell modeling, and structural biology.
The browsing program acts almost like a cellular encyclopedia.

“The way the volume browser works is that data is stored via a large multiprocessor server and many [client programs] can be attached to it at the same time,” said Joel Stiles, director of the PSC.

The browser program is small enough to run on a desktop machine and is publicly available for download. With it, one can quickly and easily view cross-sections of tissue samples, move through these samples, or play back recordings made of these samples in real-time.

Doctors could also find ways to use the application, such as by comparing the abnormal heartbeats of patients to a 3-D model of a normal heartbeat, potentially expediting a diagnosis.

The continuously improving simulations also have far-reaching results, both for biology and for individual patients. This is also the case with cell modeling, which can accurately study the way cells move in relation to one another and present a 3-D image of the cells in motion.

“There was a project with some neurologists in UCLA with a puzzling patient,” Stiles said. Although researchers were able to identify the disease in question for this patient, they were unable to account for the side effects of a mutation in his genome.

They sent their data to the PSC in hopes of discovering the cause of the anomaly.

“We used the modeling to predict a novel defect ... and then experimental people were able to verify the functional impact of this mutation,” Stiles said.

Currently, the PSC invests time into expanding its educational outreach. The center has hired new personnel and has set aside some of the grant for training researchers on how to better use their modeling tools.

Their recent push has been to offer simplified training and educational programs to make their technologies accessible to students at the high school and even middle school level.
In the coming years, researchers at the PSC hope to see tighter integration among their various systems.

“It’s already starting to happen. In our five-year plan, we hope to see direct coupling between volumetric data and cell modeling,” Stiles said.

Soon afterwards, they hope to integrate the third part of the PSC’s research, structural bioinformatics, in order to provide “truly predictive simulations” of complex biological processes, and one day possibly even model a full human being.

“[Human modeling] is part of the big picture, targeting what we call ‘personalized medicine,’ ” Stiles said.

This technology would allow people to upload their genomes, run a simulation of themselves, “[and] know at any time what proteins, and what amount of those proteins, are circulating in the bloodstream to fingerprint the current state of health,” Stiles said.

This technology, however, is still several decades away. For now, research will focus on accurately modeling processes at the cellular and tissue level. “A realistic model of a cell is a tall order,” Stiles said. “Let’s start there.”