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$1.5 Million U.Va.-IBM Initiative Powers Up Biomedical Research

January 30, 2003-- A $1.5 million U.Va.-IBM research initiative will enhance the efforts of biomedical engineers at the University of Virginia to grow replacement tissue, improve ultrasound and MRI technology, and learn about the progress of vascular disease.

The initiative was made possible through a Shared University Research award from IBM and will benefit several U.Va. research projects in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, which is jointly sponsored by the schools of medicine and engineering.

The IBM SUR program matches IBM interests with the University’s growing needs for data storage and analysis. At U.Va., the project will be supported by contributions of $250,000 each from the School of Medicine and the School of Engineering and Applied Science. The Office of Information Technology and Communication is providing an additional $500,000 in infrastructure and technical support.

“The scientists at the University of Virginia are undertaking important research across a broad spectrum of disciplines,” said Dave Turek, vice president, IBM Linux clusters and Grid solutions. “The power and reliability of the IBM eServer Linux clusters can greatly accelerate the depth and accuracy of their projects.”

The Shared University Research program connects university researchers with IBM units -- such as IBM Research, IBM Life Sciences, IBM Global Services -- and product development labs focusing on identifying future markets for IBM products.

“This IBM initiative offers U.Va. researchers the potential to make significant contributions in a vital field of medical technology and very likely, save lives,” said Richard Miksad, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

The equipment for the supercomputing initiative will be arriving shortly. It includes 48 IBM eServer x335 systems for the main Linux cluster, IBM Linear Tape Open (LTO) tape systems for an automated data archive and workstations with advanced graphics. A second Linux cluster with eight eServer x335 systems will be dedicated to magnetic resonance imaging – MRI – research scanners in the U.Va. Health System. IBM also is providing an IBM FastT storage server for high-speed data storage and retrieval.

“With the help of IBM, our faculty in biomedical engineering, radiology and cardiology will advance MRI technology to make it more efficient, improving diagnostic capabilities and patient care,” said Arthur Garson Jr., U.Va. vice president and dean of the School of Medicine. “If we can give physicians more immediate access to MRI information, our patients will benefit a great deal.”

U.Va.’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, currently ranked 13th in the country by U.S. News & World Report, believes the SUR initiative will lend new momentum to research projects. Four projects, in particular, will benefit from the vastly expanded data storage and analysis capabilities made possible through the initiative.

  • Tracking the development of vascular disease. Brian Helmke, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, studies the behavior of cells that line blood vessels. These cells – endothelial cells – change their behavior in the presence of arteriosclerosis – the thickening and hardening of blood vessel walls – and plaque buildups along the walls. Helmke wants to understand why and whether the change in cellular behavior contributes to the progression of vascular disease.
    To do this, he wants to make 3-D, digital, time-lapse movies of the cells’ skeletons under different conditions and then compare the images. The work requires massive data storage capabilities as well as a means for retrieving the movies for later analysis. The SUR project will meet both needs. For more information, contact Brian Helmke by phone at (434) 924-1726, or by email at
  • Creating sharper, faster MRI pictures. Craig Meyer, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, is working to speed up magnetic resonance imaging. Currently the data is gathered, stored and downloaded into still images while the patient is immobilized. But Meyer wants to speed up the equipment enough to capture a beating heart and present the physician with a moving real-time image.
    The second Linux cluster computer will expand Meyer’s ability to capture and analyze data, enabling him to speed up the process. For more information, contact Craig Meyer by phone at (434) 243-9495 or by email at
  • Building new tissue. Thomas Skalak, chairman of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, is one of several senior researchers at U.Va. working on various aspects of tissue engineering. Their goal is to fashion healthy new tissue – such as bones, blood vessels, and kidneys – to replace old tissue lost to damage or disease.
    But sorting through thousands of possible genes and cells – to find the right combination is a gargantuan task. Trying each possible combination one at a time is impractical because of time constraints. Which is where computational biology comes in.
    The data storage and analysis capabilities of the cluster computer will enable Skalak and his team to run through thousands of possible combinations to identify the correct formula for a particular type of tissue, allowing the researchers to move quickly to tissue assembly. For more information, contact Thomas Skalak by phone at (434) 924-0270, or by email at

Painting more nuanced ultrasound pictures. Bill Walker hates to see perfectly good data go to waste. Walker, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, wants to improve the pictures created by ultrasound machines. Currently, the information the machine receives through its transducer – a candy-bar-sized device that is passed over a patient’s skin – is bundled into a sketchy picture of soft tissue that can be difficult to interpret.
By capturing and analyzing the echoes received by each of 128 miniature receivers in the transducer, Walker believes he can create more nuanced pictures. Currently, there is no way to capture and store the added data streams. Walker has been working with support from the National Science Foundation and Philips Medical Systems to change that. They have constructed a system that will capture all of the data streams, but in the process, have created a new problem for themselves – how to manage the huge amount of data generated by this system.
The answer will arrive shortly in the form of a cluster computer through the IBM SUR project. The added data storage and analysis capabilities will allow Walker to capture all the data streams to create more nuanced pictures that are easier to interpret accurately. Walker plans to immediately put this new technology into clinical use. For more information, contact Bill Walker by phone at (434) 924-9950 or by email at


For more information about the overall impact of the IBM SUR project on biomedical research at U.Va., contact Thomas Skalak, chairman of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, by phone at (434) 924-0270, or by email at For technical information on the computing capabilities added under the IBM SUR project, contact Mitch Rosen, director of information technology for the School of Engineering and Applied Science, by phone at (434) 924-1414, or by email at

Contacts:UVA, Charlotte Crystal, (434) 924-6858 or IBM, Willow Christie, (914) 766-4427

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services


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