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Computing power breaks new boundaries in understanding stem cells

Stem cells building bone and joint tissue
Stem cells building bone and joint tissue

Computer scientists are developing Virtual Research Environments which should lead to a better understanding of stem cells behaviour.

Dr Gary Wills and Dr Yee-Wai Sim at the School of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton are working on the Collaborative Orthopaedic Research Environment (CORE) project, funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), to develop Virtual Research Environments (VRE) for orthopaedic surgeons.

CORE is developing a VRE to aid surgeons and biomedical researchers in conducting clinical trials and preparing findings for publication. The aim is for VRE users to utilise the rapidly expanding computing and storage capabilities of federated computing Grids to run data analyses and simulations, in order to understand how stem cells develop in bone and other skeletal tissues.

Dr Wills commented: ‘No one knows what triggers stem cells to develop bone. By using Grid simulations, we can begin to understand the whole process, from the level of the cells’ own programming right through to the growth and repair of living tissue in patients.’

Simon Grange, an orthopaedic surgeon involved in the work, said that the chance to model the genetic origins of disease with the clinical manifestations will provide new insights into how conditions as varied as growth disorders and osteoporotic fractures covering the full spectrum of ages will be treated in future.

‘We aim to achieve the next quantum leap forward in science benefiting from the knowledge gained from the Human Genome Project,’ he said. ‘This computing resource should open completely new avenues, starting from understanding the disease processes, to finding cost effective treatments.’

The CORE will also involve the development of computer-based models which use the Semantic Web, Grid and Internet to allow clinicians across the UK to share and reuse knowledge to improve health care. It will use new software from OMII (the Open Middleware Infrastructure Institute based at the University of Southampton) which will make possible large-scale modelling and simulations processes.

Dr Yee-Wai Sim commented: ‘No one has ever done work like this with orthopaedic surgeons. In fact, computer science has never done anything on such a scale either. We see it as a major breakthrough. The new software will make the whole process much easier for scientists and non-scientists alike to use.’

The project will run until October 2006 and a VRE demonstrator is planned to be available by mid-December this year.

Posted by Joyce Lewis on 07 Dec 2005.