NET NEWS: Med Schools Look to Virtual Dissection

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Science  06 Nov 1998:
Vol. 282, Issue 5391, pp. 1003
DOI: 10.1126/science.282.5391.1003b

Gross anatomy, that months-long dissection of a cadaver that marks a student's first year of medical school, has a new sidekick: virtual autopsy and pathology. Instructors hope the combination of both approaches will help students visualize disease processes and spread knowledge of anatomy outside medical school labs.

At the core of this movement is the Visible Human project, thousands of slices of tissue from a male and a female cadaver that the Bethesda, Maryland-based National Library of Medicine (NLM) digitized and made available 4 years ago. The project is helping many schools create a three-dimensional (3D) “recyclable” cadaver on which students can perform virtual dissections. “Ultimately, the goal is to have a living model” that allows students to witness organ systems in action, says Ramani Pichumani, program manager for visualization and modeling technology at Stanford University School of Medicine, which just received an NLM grant to begin planning for one.

Medical school officials hasten to point out that gross anatomy isn't going the way of the dodo. McGill University in Montreal is working on a project to create 3D images of the pelvis and prostate, as well as embryo development. But McGill anatomist Eugene Daniels says “we have sufficient cadavers” and no plans to cut back on live dissections.

It's a different story at the University of Leicester in England. A decline in autopsies has sent instructors scrambling for alternatives—and the university's answer is a “virtual autopsy” Web site that offers fictionalized case studies (to protect patient identities) with slides ( That site, like many of those featuring virtual anatomy, is open to anyone.

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