LIFE SCIENCES The future of simulation

With more than 18 years of experience in high-performance computing and scientific software development, Hakizumwami Birali Runesha, director of Research Computing in the Office of the Vice President for Research and National Laboratories at the University of Chicago, is passionate about high performance-computing (HPC). Trained as a civil-structural engineer, Runesha’s keen interest in applying simulation technology and HPC to life science challenges was honed in his previous post as director of Scientific Computing and Applications at the University of Minnesota Supercomputing Institute.

Compass: How are simulation and high performance computing impacting design and product development in the life sciences industry today?

H.B. RUNESHA: Over the past five years or so, I’ve been interested in the role high-performance computing (HPC) could play in the life sciences, in particular for the design of medical devices. Minnesota has a very large concentration of companies that produce medical technology products and, along with some of my colleagues in Minnesota, we had a vision to enable simulation-based engineering for the design and optimization of medical devices. With the advance of computer hardware, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other imaging technologies, it is becoming easy to do 3D-reconstructions, and therefore paving the way to the ability to use patient-specific approaches that will allow you to improve on the design of the devices. Using simulation, you can go through thousands and thousands of parametric studies and then refine them before you ever do a prototype. With my background in civil-structural engineering, I was drawn in by what aerospace and automotive companies have accomplished using simulation for the design of airplanes and automobiles respectively. The same principles can be applied to the life sciences. In the years to come, you’re going to see simulation and the use of HPC play a big role in product development for the design and optimization of medical devices.

I believe simulation will play a role in all aspects of the life science product design.

What role will simulation play in efforts such as the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) Innovation Pathway initiative to get higher-quality, safer products into patients’ hands faster?

H.B.R: It takes a very long time for a product to finish the whole approval process. One would argue that if we can reduce that time, we will bring product to market much faster, otherwise we are really losing our competitive edge with other countries. With advances in algorithm development and computer hardware, you can perform high-resolution simulations that provide you with good results. There is still work to be done to validate many models, however there is a great deal in the process itself that with some of the tools that have already been validated, we can start thinking about how can we improve the regulatory process by involving simulation, rather than simply experimental approaches. Computation is now a third pillar of science, next to experiment and theory, and starting to really establish itself as a reliable avenue.

If companies can agree on a basic framework that is compliant to what the FDA is looking for, we can start cutting down some of those steps. The big roadblock is the culture of change. How do you get these companies to start using HPC? But the potential is huge.

What connection do you see between simulation and innovation?

H.B.R:  When you’re given a tool where you can make mistakes … brainstorm and try out … you become more inventive. If you’re an engineer, your boss can’t give you a million dollars to try an experiment every time you have a new idea. But on your simulator software, you can test if your idea makes sense without spending all that money. That’s the whole core of innovation, answering the ‘What if’ questions. Can you try things? Can you test things? Can you afford to be bold with your hypotheses? By trying, you discover more questions ... you can experience more. All of that is really critical.

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by Lisa Roner
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