If you could donate your body to science after you die — knowing it would be frozen, sliced into thousands of pieces, and photographed millimeter by millimeter — would you?
That’s the thrust of the Visible Human Project, an ambitious plan to photograph cross sections of human cadavers for digital analysis and virtualization.
The project began in the 1990s with one donated male body and one donated female body.
The man was a convicted felon executed by lethal injection.
The woman was an anonymous housewife who died of a heart attack. Her body was donated by her husband.
That was the status of the project until a third participant literally walked into the room.
Susan Potter, the subject of an extensive new profile in National Geographic, was a surprise late entrant into the Visible Human Project.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine facilitated the program. It was supposed to wrap up with just the original male and female cadavers photographed in 1994 and 1995.
Formal funding for the project ended in 2001.
The original vision for the project called for healthy male and female cadavers.Potter, who was at an advanced age with a history of disease and physical disabilities, didn’t meet those original qualifications.
But Vic Spitzer, PhD, one of the lead researchers on the original Visible Human Project, soon saw the value of having a “diseased body” for medical students to study in-depth.
That began to shape an extended vision of the project for the 21st century.Potter, who approached Spitzer in 2000, died in 2015. Her cadaver was cut and imaged in 27,000 different segments, more than four times as many as the Visible Human’s healthy female and more than 10 times as many as the male specimen.
“The whole goal of imaging the cross-sections was to re-stack them into a complete human, identify everything in the body, and then take the body apart, present it any way a learner wants to see it — from the skin, in cross-section — any cross-section — not just one of the original images — or in 3D,” Spitzer told Reddit users in an “ask me anything” (AMA) question-and-answer forum.
A digitized image of a section of a male abdomen.
A future of ‘visible people’
Technological advances mean bigger, better, and more comprehensive 3-D and virtual imaging can come from the project, even as it has moved from public to semiprivate hands.Potter’s segmentation and imaging, for instance, was funded by Spitzer’s own company, Touch of Life Technologies, as well as the University of Colorado School of Medicine, which offered lab and office space (and where Spitzer teaches).
It’s also where the original project featured around a dozen full-time workers and more than 100 students and interns.
The current work is supported largely by Spitzer’s small team and students at the university’s master’s degree in modern human anatomy — around 25 students per year.
“We need a bookshelf of human bodies that encompass a variation in age, gender, race, body build — and then variation and pathology. We don’t want just the Visible Human (male and female) and Susan Potter,” Spitzer wrote in his AMA. “There are also Visible Human Korea and China Projects that were patterned after ours.”His goal, Spitzer told Healthline in a follow-up email, was always to have a comprehensive database of all manner of virtual cadavers for study and where he believes this project must go in the future.
Unlike traditional cadaver studies, the Visible Human Project’s digital images can be examined for decades.The images from the original two participants as well as Potter are being studied today.
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The reasons why people donate their body to science can be complex, but more often than not, they stem from a simple desire to contribute to education and medical learning, Spitzer says.
And the project has been fruitful, both in its first phase and current iteration.
There are more than 4,000 licenses for Visible Human Project data out in the wild, according to National Geographic’s reporting, and the integration of the original data as well as Potter’s images is far from fully realized.
For instance, “anatomy education software and medical procedure simulators have… been well served,” Spitzer said, with virtual reality anatomy software under development.
Currently, there aren’t any additional future virtual cadavers waiting in the wings, but there weren’t any plans to photograph another Visible Human in 2000 when Susan Potter walked into his office, the doctor points out.“I would be open to other bodies,” he said. “Particularly younger.”One thing that made Potter’s case special and distinct from the first two study subjects is that she provided documentation of her life as well as her body, allowing students to get a fuller picture of the nuance of the cadaver’s history and story, beyond just higher-resolution images and advanced scanning techniques.
The goal, he wrote in his AMA, is always to have a representation that’s more like a living human and less like a cadaver.
As for the future of this project and ones like it, Spitzer envisions that they may need to rely on a network of people worldwide beyond the horizons of his lab.
“I want to stress the need for crowdsourcing the identification and modeling of Susan Potter and future data as we are now able to produce images more rapidly but the identification process is not automated,” he wrote. “I also feel like there are a lot of people around the world that would love to contribute to more knowledge and understanding [but] we need to create the infrastructure to support this kind of activity.”
“I am always looking for money to further the goals of this effort,” he said.