Binary Breathing

2004 grant to create a 3-D model of the respiratory tract

In September 2004, researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, Washington, received a $10 million grant to create a three-dimensional imaging and computer model of how the respiratory tract interacts with particles carried in the air. Ultimately, the researchers hope the effort will lead to a better understanding of what happens when people inhale either toxic substances or medications.


“We hope to develop a good predictive tool for modeling drug delivery or dosimetry,” says Richard Corley, PhD, principal investigator and PNNL environmental toxicologist.


In 2001, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory scientists designed a virtual computer model of the nose, larynx, and lungs of a rat in hopes of better understanding how pollutants affect those systems. Now, they’re taking that work further. Courtesy: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.Corley and his colleagues have been working in this area for some time. In 2001, they developed a virtual rat lung that breathes on a computer screen. Since then, his collaborators have also been working on virtual models of primate and human lungs—models that integrate movement, as well as cellular information.


At this point, says Corley, “We can go from animal, to image, to a mesh capable of doing air flow simulations within a day or two.”


The next step—generating a computational atlas of an animal’s respiratory tract—requires that the researchers first determine how variable the animals are. “There’s some fundamental biology we’re getting out of this,” says Corley. “How many animals do we need in order to get an atlas? How variable are we? For the first time, we can get a statistical angle on that.”


Another important step is checking the accuracy of the model through lab experiments. “The computational capabilities predict where particles go,” Corley says, “but we need to measure it as well, to validate.”


While rapidly building up sets of data showing the geometry of the respiratory tract, Corley and his collaborators are also creating function and movement models. And they want to understand what’s happening on the cellular level as well—how each of the 40 different types of cells in the respiratory tract interact with particles that land on them.


Eventually, the project will produce a web-based program for interactive simulation modeling. Right now, Corley says, it’s important for people doing this work to solve a real medical problem early on. “What’s some low-hanging fruit out there for solving? We’re looking at drug delivery.”


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