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San Diego Supercomputer Center's Comet Aids in Sickle Cell Research Discovery

New models show details of stress caused by malformed red blood cells

By Kimberly Mann Bruch, SDSC Communications

 

Researchers used XSEDE allocations on SDSC's Comet supercomputer to simulate the forces caused by sickle cells upon vessel walls. These snapshots show a front view of healthy red blood cells (red) and sickle red blood cells (blue) as they are distributed during flow. Credit: Michael Graham, University of Wisconsin – Madison, et al.

Although there has yet to be a cure for sickle cell disease, researchers recently used National Science Foundation's Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE) allocations to create detailed simulations on the Comet system at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) showing how these stiff red blood cells flow through blood vessels, deforming and colliding along the way.

The study, recently published in the Physical Review Fluids journal, reveals new information regarding the ways in which sickle cells collide with one another as well as healthy cells and blood vessel walls.

"Our new simulations showed how the motions of sickle cells near vessel walls generate large forces," explained the study's Principal Investigator Michael Graham, a professor of chemical and biological engineering at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. "The forces caused by these sickle cells impact healthy cells on the blood vessel walls, which in turns causes inflammation."

In particular, Graham said the group's simulations provided evidence regarding damage to healthy cells lining blood vessels, but the origin of this damage had not been well understood. "Large-scale shared computing resources such as Comet open doors to doing simulations that could not be done with the resources of an individual research group," he said.

"We are grateful for being able to use supercomputers like Comet to help us better illustrate, and hopefully come closer to a cure for, sickle cell disease," -- Wilbur Lam, Physician and Biomedical Engineer at Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology

Graham collaborated with Wilbur Lam, a physician and biomedical engineer at Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology. "We are grateful for being able to use supercomputers like Comet to help us better illustrate, and hopefully come closer to a cure for, sickle cell disease," said Lam, who is also a pediatric hematologist at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, which has the largest pediatric hematology program in the United States.

Last year, Lam's dedication to sickle cell disease research was recognized by the Atlanta Business Chronicle as a finalist for the Health Care Innovator/Researcher Award in the Annual Health Care Heroes Awards. In addition to his collaboration with Graham on these latest supercomputer simulations, Lam developed a non-invasive test for anemia that enables anyone at risk for that condition, including sickle cell disease patients, to send an image of their fingernails to measure their hemoglobin levels and determine whether they need to seek medical care.

To learn more about the work of Graham, Lam, and their colleagues, an additional article is available here.

At a Glance:

  • Researchers used XSEDE allocations to illustrate how sickle cells flow through blood vessels.
  • New simulations showed how motions of sickle cells near vessel walls generate large forces.
  • These forces impact healthy cells on the blood vessel walls – causing inflammation.