NIH Press Release
National Library of Medicine

Wednesday, Sept. 18, 1996

Bob Mehnert
Kathy Gardner
(301) 496-6308

National Library of Medicine to Unveil Vast Potential of "Visible Human" Project
Advances in Surgical Planning and Cancer Screening to be Announced

According to Dr. Donald A.B. Lindberg, Director of the National Library of Medicine (NLM), "Next month, the public will get a look at how the world's first computerized cadavers'--referred to as the Visible Human Male and the Visible Human Female--are beginning to revolutionize how anatomy is taught and medicine is practiced in the United States and throughout the world," at a conference to be held on October 7 and 8, 1996 on the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

A press conference to demonstrate the application of several new technologies will be held from 11:30 a.m. to 12:00 noon, Monday, October 7, 1996 at the Natcher Auditorium, National Institutes of Health, 8600 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, Maryland.

In 1993, a Colorado team of researchers funded by the NLM, an arm of the National Institutes of Health, sliced thousands of razor-thin tissue cross-sections from two cadavers--a 39-year-old convicted murderer who was executed by lethal injection in Texas and a 59-year-old Maryland woman each of whom willed their bodies to science. Each view was digitally photographed and stored creating data that can be converted into full-color, three-dimensional images. These extraordinary images allow users to take a virtual tour of the body.

In November, 1994 the "Visible Human Project" data was made available to the public on the Internet with just one requirement: Users, who sign a licensing agreement, are required to keep NLM informed of how the information is being used. To date, over 500 licensing agreements have been signed.

This first-of-its kind conference will demonstrate some of the remarkable future uses of the Visible Human database by licensees. Among the medical uses presented will be:

  • Non-invasive colon cancer screening.
  • Researchers at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, will demonstrate how they use the "Visible Human" database to create a virtual colonoscopy simulator that could eliminate the need for the costly, uncomfortable, invasive procedure coupled with its complications, that currently screens for colon cancer. Instead, patients would need only a noninvasive computer- assisted tomography (CAT) or magnetic-resonance imaging (MRI) scan to be tested. This quick and inexpensive procedure will make it feasible to regularly screen patients for colon cancer.

  • Simplified plastic surgery.
  • Researchers at NASA Ames Research Center in California will demonstrate how the Visible Human data will assist surgeons in visualizing in advance the results of plastic or reconstructive surgery by permitting simulation of the procedure. If the outcome of the virtual surgery is not acceptable to the surgeon, the virtual process can be repeated until perfect, without touching the patient. This method, currently under development, will be applicable to other medical fields. It is anticipated to find widespread use to reduce the amount of time required to reach surgical proficiency, and to accomplish this by computer simulation rather than in the more expensive arena of the surgery suite. In the specialty of craniofacial surgery, for example, it may take 20 years or more to train a surgeon. If this period is reduced by just one-half through surgical simulation, ten years will be added to the independent productivity of the surgeon.

  • Prostate cancer surgical rehearsal.
  • Researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota will show how the Visible Human datasets coupled with the development of computer capability to rapidly render high resolution images in 3-D have made it possible for surgeons to rehearse and plan for prostate surgery in advance of the actual operation. With this new technology, surgeons will now have an opportunity to preview a specific patient's critical anatomic territory and plan for the medical procedure in advance of surgery.

  • Surgical simulation.
  • Researchers from Colorado will demonstrate how residents and post-graduate fellows simulate surgery with an electronic scalpel and spinal taps with a needle simulator. They can fine tune their manual dexterity on a computer screen before taking on actual patients. In Bethesda, Maryland a technology has been developed to train physicians to perform minimally invasive medical procedures, like angioplasty, and handle complications before they ever practice on a patient.

  • Revolutionizing the study of anatomy: The Recyclable Cadaver.
  • One of the most promising outcomes of the Visible Human database is its ability to allow for repeated dissection. While anatomical dissection normally destroys the specimen, the Visible Human allows for a "reversible" dissection. Researchers from the University of Maryland and Ames, Iowa will describe how they confirmed their recent and widely reported discovery of a new facial muscle using the Visible Human data set.

    Dr. Michael Ackerman, NLM's Assistant Director for High Performance Computing and Communications and Head of the Virtual Human Project said, "The Visible Human Project is taking medical education out of the dark ages by allowing physicians to practice or simulate a surgical procedure in a virtual environment where mistakes do not adversely affect patients--just as flight simulators have revolutionized airline safety."

    Press packets will be available in advance of the October 7 press event. Contact Bob Mehnert or Kathy Gardner at (301)496-6308 for packets or further information.