Supercomputers are getting to the heart of the matter
07 Feb 2017



At the Hartree Centre, scientists are using our powerful supercomputers to visualise how blood flows through implanted blood pumps


​​Credit: Dreamstime/Dmyto Tolokonov​


Heart failures and related diseases claim more than 17 million lives across the world each year – more than all forms of cancer combined. The number is expected to grow to 23.6 million by 2030*. According to the British Heart Foundation, 155,000 people died from heart diseases in 2014 in the UK alone. It estimates that seven million people in the UK are living with heart and circulatory diseases and healthcare costs could be as much as £11 billion.

At the Hartree Centre, scientists are using our powerful supercomputers to visualise how blood flows through implanted blood pumps, which prolong the lives of heart patients waiting for a donor. The work will help to reduce the number of prototypes needed for clinical testing – so saving on time, materials and costs – and potentially lead to the earlier availability of devices for patient use.

The goal of the research is to assess if using computational fluid dynamics in conjunction with high performance computing (HPC) can increase confidence in the use of computer models to design these complex medical devices.

The research came about through the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), who put out a call to assess whether computer models can accurately simulate the performance of blood pumps (also known as Ventricular Assist Devices, or VADs).

Working with colleagues from FH Aachen University of Applied Sciences and FZ Jülich Research Centre in Germany, and EDF R&D, scientists from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) developed simulations of how a centrifugal pump would behave with blood flowing through it at different rates, and using various rotation angles.

Professor Dave Emerson, one of the STFC scientists working on the project, explains: “The pump has a central rotor and blades which turn, helping the blood to flow. It would take several revolutions of the blades before it gets to a quasi-steady state where the blood flows smoothly, so we looked at results obtained at between 5 - 15 revolutions.”

The researchers used four million hours of computing time at the Hartree Centre and FZ Jülich to perform the billions of calculations needed to produce faster, more accurate blood-flow simulations. One simulation involved 76 million elements, or computational cells, just to describe a pump’s dimensions.

Through these calculations they were able to predict where any damage to the blood might occur through turbulence in the flow, which could lead to blood clotting (thrombosis) or the breakdown of red blood cells (haemolysis). These are the two major life-threatening factors for patients depending on VADs.

“Our results suggest that the design of these VADs need to be more blood-sensitive to reduce the risk of haemolysis and thrombosis,” says Professor Emerson. “Our work, and the work of other groups, can be used by the FDA to improve future devices, making them safer and available earlier for heart patients in the future.”

*Statistics courtesy of the American Heart Association

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