NIH Press Advisory
National Library of Medicine

Tuesday, September 22, 1998

Bob Mehnert
Kathy Gardner

The Visible Humans: Coming of Age

Conference to Showcase Advances in Cancer Screening, Surgical Planning, Educational Curriculums, and Innovative Clinical Procedures

(Bethesda, Md.)-According to Donald A.B. Lindberg, M.D., Director of the National Library of Medicine (NLM), "Researchers from around the world are using the data from the visible man and woman to devise 3-D educational curriculums and innovative clinical procedures, including those with life-saving potential." Lindberg noted, "Next week, the public will see how the world's first 'computerized cadavers'-referred to as the Visible Human Project-are changing how anatomy is taught and medicine is practiced in the U.S. and throughout the world," at a conference on October 1 and 2, 1998 on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Md.

Press are invited to see a demonstration of several new technologies based on the Visible Human Project at 11:30 a.m., Thursday, October 1, 1998 at the Natcher Conference Center, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md.

Funded by the NLM, a part of the National Institutes of Health, a team of researchers from the University of Colorado prepared digital images from two cadavers: a 39-year-old male and a 59-year-old female. Several electronic imaging techniques were used on the bodies, including electronic color photographs of thousands of razor-thin tissue cross-sections. The resulting datasets are enormous (altogether some 55 gigabytes) and open up a new world to researchers.

In November 1994 the Visible Human Project data were 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. Some 1,000 agreements have been signed with scientists in 30 countries.

"The challenge facing us now is how to take this massive amount of complicated data and make it useful for the everyday user," said Dr. Michael Ackerman, NLM's Assistant Director for High Performance Computing and Communications and Head of the Visible Human Project.

Scientists have already started applying the Visible Human data in remarkable ways. For example:

Colon cancer screening. Physicians at Wake Forest University Medical School in North Carolina have come up with a new screening method where they can now do a virtual colonoscopy for a fraction of the time, cost, and discomfort of a "real" colonoscopy. Using a special software package based on research done with the Visible Human dataset, physicians look for lesions or polyps in the patient's CAT-scan. Wake Forest's David Vining, M.D., remarked, "Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States today. However, people are reluctant to undergo colorectal exams. Within six months, we hope to make this quick and easy colon cancer detection method available for physicians and their patients nationwide. It should increase widespread screening for this major killer of Americans, while simultaneously saving over $1 billion annually."

Prostate cancer and brain surgery rehearsal. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota use data from the Visible Human Project to practice patient-specific prostate and brain surgery before performing the real surgery. "We want to be able to take a technique, such as surgical simulation which now can be done only by experts at leading medical centers, and make it available to any physician," says Ackerman. "Eventually, the physician even in rural Alaska, will be able to practice on patient-specific data before the actual surgery is performed. The end result can be quicker, more effective surgery, a healthier patient, and lower mortality," he said. Surgical simulation. Engineers at HT Medical in Rockville, Md., have developed new computer-based systems to allow physicians to practice two commonly performed medical procedures, flexible bronchoscopy and IV catheterization, "on the computer" prior to patient contact. About 150,000 bronchoscopies are performed annually-most commonly to conduct a lung biopsy to diagnose lung cancer-and about 80% of hospitalized patients receive IV therapy. Both procedures can result in undue patient harm if performed with a lack of skill, yet there has been no satisfactory alternative to practice on people. "The simulator brings the Visible Human back to life-he breathes, his heart beats, he even coughs," said Greg Merril, HT Medical President and CEO.

"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," said Ackerman.

Recyclable Cadaver. One of the most promising outcomes of the Visible Human database is the ability to allow for repeated dissection. While anatomical dissection normally destroys the specimen, the Visible Human allows for a "reversible" dissection. Researchers from Engineering Animation, Inc., of Ames, Iowa, have developed software that will allow students to dissect gross anatomy without destroying the original structure of the anatomical model or surrounding tissue and organ relationships-an impossible feat with a cadaver. "Instead of cutting through a cadaver's muscles to view the bones, a student can remove muscles one at a time by moving the cursor, revealing a real human skeleton with a simple click of the mouse," said Carol Jacobson, senior director of EAI Interactive.

Creation of customized hip replacements and other devices. Scientists at Engineering Animation, Inc. of Ames, Iowa, are designing software that will transform the Visible Human male into anybody, of any age, gender, height, weight, and bone structure. This "morphing" will help create knee and hip replacement devices custom-tailored to the patient. (EAI has already produced images that depict a knee and hip replacement designed to fit the Visible Human male. They will show animations of these and demonstrate how this technology can be used to morph the male into various body sizes.) Because this is "virtual prototyping," created on a computer without building physical models of the devices, EAI's morphing software is expected to save considerable time and money.

Information packets for the media will be available in advance of the October 1 event. Contact Bob Mehnert or Kathy Gardner at (301)496-6308 (email: for packets or further information. The web site for NLM is: