Understanding the dynamics of blood and respiration
The Center for Biomedical Computing is one of Norway's eight new Centres of Excellence. With the aid of mathematics, physics and computer technology, the centre performs modelling and analysis of bodily tissues and organs. Its long-term objective is to develop improved methods and new tools for medical diagnostics.
"Unfortunately, many people remember mathematics and physics as subjects they had to cram for with no idea of their practical use," says Professor Hans Petter Langtangen, director of the new centre. Yet these two fields are playing an increasingly crucial role in modern science and industry. Before constructing a mobile phone, factory, drilling platform, car or aeroplane, engineers first create and experiment with computer models. These models are based on the laws of physics, and their equations are solved with the aid of mathematics and raw computing power.
The body as a medium
The Center for Biomedical Computing is taking this process one step further. Its researchers will combine physics, mathematics and computers to simulate the flow of blood through the human cardiovascular system and what happens when we draw air into our lungs.
Calculating the flow of fluids and gasses has long kept many areas of industry and science busy. Without simulating the movements of air, for instance, we would not be able to fly or forecast the weather.
"But it's even more complicated to model the flow of blood and air through the body, as this flow takes place within a very complex network of pathways which are in motion and are affected by surrounding tissue and muscles," explains Professor Langtangen. "The research we are carrying out has only recently been made possible, thanks to new methods of mathematical computation and access to extremely powerful computers."
"The challenge we are trying to solve is to create advanced computer programmes that can simulate the course of blood and air in the body." He adds that the long-term objective, after what is expected to be an extensive period of rather basic research is to design better methods and new tools for medical diagnostics. To illustrate what his centre works with, Langtangen draws another parallel to traditional engineering science.
"No one today would dream of building a large bridge without using computer programs with mathematical models for calculating the bridge design's stability and strength; it's absolutely imperative to achieving both safety and functionality. We think along the same lines when it comes to medicine. In the future, surgeons may prepare for a complicated operation by entering the patient's data into a PC in order to simulate various approaches to the procedure. The hope is that simulation will help to minimise risks and thereby improve the success rate of complicated surgery."
From pills to spray
The lab's assistant director, Joakim Sundnes, presents another example. Now that sprays are replacing pills in many medical treatments, one might think it's simply a matter of squeezing the bottle and inhaling the dose. But it is not so simple.
For instance, it may be the case that the particles of the spray do not actually reach quite deep enough into the lungs or other sites in the pulmonary organs. Various factors may affect this, such as the geometries of the mouth and air passages, the way the individual breathes, the size of the particles in the gas inhaled, and the degree of flow turbulence.
"Enhancing our knowledge in this area will be critical for developing best practice for this type of medication," says Sundnes. "While medicine today is primarily an empirical science, many areas within this field could benefit from actively incorporating knowledge from physics, mathematics and computers - just as industry has been doing very successfully."
One further example involves investigating how medicines are actually absorbed and work in the body. A great deal has been learned about the impact of medications on individual cells, thanks to laboratory trials and other methods.
"But the body is an intricate, complex organism. How an occurrence in a cell contributes to the organ as a whole is very complicated," explains Sundnes. "Insights we gain from computer simulations may help us to customise medications more effectively in the future."
Center for Biomedical Computing (CBC)
Objective: To develop mathematical methods and software for flow simulation in the body.
Collaborators: Simula Research Laboratory, University of Oslo, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI), University of California at San Diego, and several other universities and research institutes abroad.
Annual funding: NOK 7.5 million from the Research Council of Norway
Contact person: Professor Hans Petter Langtangen
The heirs of Simula Research Laboratory
The Center for Biomedical Computing is an outgrowth of the Simula Research Laboratory at Fornebu in Oslo. The lab was named for the programming language developed by the Norwegian professors Kristen Nygård and Ole-Johan Dahl.
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