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An Edge Against Cancer

Rice University uses POWER7 cluster technology to customize treatments.

Rice University uses POWER7 cluster technology to customize treatments.
Rice University’s Pablo Yepes is helping cancer patients get customized treatment faster. Photography by Robert Seale

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Customer: Rice University
Headquarters: Houston
Business: Higher education and advanced research
Challenge: Addressing issues related to radiation-based cancer treatment and research
Solution: Receiving a grant and IBM-donated BlueBioU system to speed cancer therapy and research
Hardware: A 49-node, POWER7 BlueBioU high-performance computing platform
Software: Red Hat Enterprise Linux

As some patients battling cancer can attest, the cure can often feel worse than the disease. That’s why medical researchers and other scientists are diligently working on lessening the side effects of such life-saving remedies as chemotherapy and radiation. In the case of radiation, for example, new treatments such as intensity-modulated proton therapy (IMPT) are being used to reduce damage to the healthy tissue surrounding tumors.

But the traditional processes of figuring out how best to minimize damage can take longer than physicians and patients would like. No two tumors are alike and each must be treated differently, depending on factors such as size and location. This means each patient’s particular situation must be taken into account, with models of the best treatment options being created for every individual undergoing radiation therapy.

Additionally, there’s the issue of potential secondary cancers being caused by radiation treatment. Assessing such a risk for a specific patient could be helpful in determining which particular modality of treatment should be used. But current dose-calculation engines don’t allow for this type of risk assessment.

With that in mind, Rice University is using its own algorithms running on several different systems to dramatically increase the speeds by which it can offer alternative and safer radiation-treatment options. One of these systems is BlueBioU, a high-performance computing (HPC) environment based on IBM POWER7* technology. The applications running on it were optimized with the IBM XL C/C++ and XL Fortran for Linux* compilers. Now, thanks to this HPC and application-enhanced research platform, results are being completed in minutes instead of the previous hundreds of CPU hours. This is giving doctors much quicker access to the information they need to lessen radiation-treatment side effects.

“Having a systems that allows you to conduct analysis quicker and with a larger sample, you can get better, more accurate results.” —Pablo Yepes, Senior Faculty Fellow, Rice University

Jim Utsler, IBM Systems Magazine senior writer, has been covering the technology field for more than a decade. Jim can be reached at



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