Professor Thomas Hughes and his research team simulate a new treatment for the most common cause of heart attacks and develop an instructional video on how to do it with the aid of the Texas Advanced Computing Center and the Faculty Innovation Center.

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and represents more than a half trillion-dollar business in research and treatment in the U.S. alone. Most people do not know that two-thirds of all heart attacks are caused by something known as vulnerable plaques, which are fatty lipid pool deposits in the inner layer of the arterial wall.

After extensive computational research, faculty and staff of The University of Texas at Austin's Institute for Computational and Engineering Sciences (ICES), Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) and Faculty Innovation Center (FIC) developed a 14-minute animation to explain the underlying nature of vulnerable plaques and a potential clinical procedure for treatment with the goal of personalizing diagnostic and therapeutic interventions in patients.

"Not everyone knows about vulnerable plaque," said Thomas Hughes, a professor at ICES and the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics. "Everybody hears about heart disease and heart attacks, yet vulnerable plaques are often the source—they are very insidious. If a vulnerable plaque ruptures and blocks flow to an area of the heart, it's a heart attack; if it blocks a part of the brain, it's a stroke."

Yet, how do you communicate this science to the doctors, scientists, students, industry professionals and patients who need to understand it?

"Visualization is absolutely essential—there's no question about it," Hughes said.

With the help of sophisticated visualization expertise and techniques from TACC and FIC, the new animation illustrates how engineering and medical approaches can unite to address an unmet clinical need, according to Shaolie Hossain, ICES Visiting Research Scholar and a research associate at the Methodist Hospital Research Institute in Houston.

"Navigating ‘the great divide' that often exists between clinicians and engineers or scientists can be challenging," Hossain said. "We hope this video will help bridge this gap, and prove to be educational to the general public."

This research began as Hossain's dissertation while she was a PhD student at the university. Abbott Vascular, a California-based medical device company, where Hossain spent six months as a research intern, was the initial sponsor of this work. The latter phase of the research was supported by Portugal CoLab.

Many visualizations and computer-generated animations exist to explain scientific results. "What seemed to be lacking was an explanation of the mathematical and computational modeling behind these videos and animations," said Ben Urick, a graduate research assistant who works in TACC's Visualization Group. "We wanted to tell the whole story of the research from the background to the modeling to important results—all with the same level of aesthetic quality."

Hughes, who has a long-standing relationship working with TACC's visualization group, said of the animation project, "We now have a fantastic respect for filmmakers—it was a real learning experience."

The staff at TACC and FIC used more than 12 pieces of software, such as MRI viewing applications and CAD and animation packages, and wrote original code to make some of the file conversions.

In addition to the animation, and also using TACC advanced computing resources, Hughes and Hossain developed a computational toolset and simulation capabilities to model important characteristics of the research such as fluid flow, drug release, nanoparticle properties, and patient-specific geometries.

"Modeling these very complicated systems involves solving millions of equations each time step, and for millions of time steps, so the computational burden is enormous," Hughes said. "For a computational institute like ICES, having an advanced computing center like TACC available is a platform for all of our research."

In vivo validation is the next step toward clinical implementation, under the existing collaboration between ICES and the Methodist Hospital Research Institute. "This will take us closer to developing new, non-invasive procedures for the detection and treatment of vulnerable plaque," Hossain said.

The animation was submitted to the National Science Foundation's International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge in the "Video" category. The full 14-minute instructional video is available on TACC's YouTube page.