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Building a Digital Lung

Graphic of Human LungIIHR Research Engineer Ching-Long Lin is a key player in a project to develop a digital model of the lung—a task so complex it was once considered beyond the processing power of the largest supercomputers.

Lin, who is also a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at the University of Iowa, was recently awarded a four-year, $1.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to help further his work on the digital human lung. Lin serves as project director for the grant, which will help the team develop a digital human airway defense system.

The digital lung uses computed tomography (CT) scans to develop a detailed geometrical model of the lung, while computational fluid dynamic (CFD) models simulate the flow of air through the lung. Until recently, the model was restricted to the trachea and one section of the lung, due to limits on what computers could process.

But a new parallel high-performance computing cluster at the University of Iowa has made what once seemed impossible — possible.

In 2008, Lin received a $473,636 Shared Instrumentation Grant (SIG) from the NIH to purchase computer resources to support cardiopulmonary computing and imaging. Lin and 11 other UI researchers pooled their funding (including the SIG grant) to create a high-performance computing cluster—known as Helium or “He”—to provide the computational power that cutting-edge research such as this requires. The researchers will share the $1.16 million bill for Helium in return for greater computing power and faster run times. Helium is the largest high-performance computing cluster ever installed on the UI campus and harnesses the computational power of 200 dual-socket, quad-core servers yielding 1,600 computing cores. In addition to Helium’s computing and storage capabilities, Lin is establishing a three-dimensional visualization laboratory, enabling the analysis of large datasets  on GPU-based workstations.

Mark Wilson, director of research computer at IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering, says research in many diverse disciplines relies on Helium’s high-performance computing tools and methods. “Professor Ching-Long Lin … will be using the cluster to create patient-specific models of the human lung and associated respiratory cycles,” Wilson says. “This very large computational problem currently requires weeks of run time on smaller systems. The new cluster will cut run times dramatically.”

Before Lin became involved in the digital lung project, he conducted research in fluid mechanics and advanced CFD algorithms, using CFD to study atmospheric boundary layer and two-phase flows. In 2005, UI Professor of Radiology Eric Hoffman invited Lin to apply his knowledge of fluid mechanics and his expertise in high-performance computing to the human lung. Lin joined a multidisciplinary team that developed the digital lung, which provides enhanced visualization of airflow through the lung for physicians and scientists.

The UI team’s work is part of a larger, worldwide initiative to understand the vast scale of human biology, from the tiniest molecule to the body itself. Known as the “Physiome Project,” Lin’s digital lung is a crucial piece of this human puzzle.

“I’m very pleased to have received this new NIH grant to continue my effort in contributing to the worldwide Physiome Project,” Lin says. “This award proves that the existing digital lung model and the concept of the proposed systems biology approach remain at the very forefront of innovative technology.”

The digital lung project is a collaboration between the UI College of Engineering and the Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine. Lin’s UI colleagues include Hoffman and David A. Stoltz, professor of internal medicine. The project also includes Merryn H. Tawhai, professor at the Bioengineering Institute, University of Auckland, New Zealand.

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Last modified on June 25th, 2015
Posted on May 6th, 2011

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