IBM’s Zurich Research Laboratory and scientists of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH) have developed a new system which provides extensive simulation of real human bone structures, providing doctors with a high definition view of the strength or fragility of bones.

The company says the new system could lead to better clinical tools to improve the diagnosis and treatment of osteoporosis, a widespread disease that affects one in three women and one in five men over the age of 50.

Aiming for an accurate, powerful and fast method to automate the analysis of bone strength, scientists of the Departments of Mechanical and Process Engineering and Computer Science at ETH Zurich partnered with supercomputing experts at IBM’s Zurich Research Laboratory.

The new simulation system they developed combines density measurements with a large-scale mechanical analysis of the inner-bone microstructure.

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

"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.

He added: "This work is an excellent example of the dramatic potential that supercomputers can have for our everyday lives."

The simulation system is intended to enhance a clinician’s ability to better treat fractures and analyse and detect osteoporotic fragility, in order to take preventative measures before osteoporosis advances in patients.

Currently, osteoporosis is diagnosed by measuring bone mass and density using specialised x-ray or computer tomography techniques. IBM’s supercomputer simulation is able to more quickly generate large quantities of output data to large sizes.

"It is this combination of increased speed and size that will allow solving clinically relevant cases in acceptable time and unprecedented detail," says Professor Ralph Müller, the director of the Institute for Biomechanics at ETH Zürich.

"Ten years from now, the performance of today’s supercomputers will become available in desktop systems, making such simulations of bone strength a routine practice in computer tomography," addeds Dr. Alessandro Curioni, manager of the computational sciences group at IBM’s Zurich Research Laboratory.

In future work, IBM and ETH scientists plan to aim to advance their simulation techniques to go beyond the calculation of static bone strength and to be able to simulate the actual formation of the fractures for individual patients, thereby taking another step towards achieving a fast, reliable and early detection of people with high fracture risk.

Professor Peter Arbenz of the Institute of Computational Science, who initiated the collaboration among the involved groups, said: "We are at the beginning of an exciting journey and we need to further continue this line of research in order to achieve this goal."


IBM Research