London medical students are learning about human anatomy with a digital scanning table which creates virtual cadavers in 3D. The table uses a combination of graphics and computed tomography (CT) scans to replicate a real body, allowing students and surgeons to see what's beneath the skin before they make their first incision.
LONDON, ENGLAND, UNITED KINGDOM (JUNE 14, 2012) (REUTERS) - The first virtual dissection table in Europe is being used by surgeons and medical students in London, offering the promise of revolutionising the teaching of anatomy and changing how surgeons plan and conduct real operations.
Developed by US-based company Anatomage, the 'Anatomage' table cost Imperial College, the partner of St Mary's Hospital, £60,000 (US$93,000) last year. The same length and size as a body on a conventional dissection table, the 'cadaver' which appears on the screen is a virtual body, created using a mixture of graphics and real computed tomography (CT) scans.
Students and surgeons interact with the table either via touch or with a traditional mouse. The body can be stripped back to expose internal organs and individual areas enlarged to enable detailed study. The software can also work with real patient data. At Imperial College, hundreds of patients' scans are already being collected to help doctors supervise and carry out their treatment. The table can hold up to one terabyte of memory, equivalent to around 1,000 patient cases.
Dr Philip Pratt, research fellow at Imperial College, says one of the biggest issues facing surgeons is to be able to locate arteries and veins, whose positions vary from person to person. With the software creating a 3D picture of individual patients, surgeons can know exactly what to expect under the skin before making their first incision and during during surgical procedures.
"Unlike a traditional way of viewing a medical image where you see a slice through that scan and you can move the slice backwards and forwards, you don't really get to see things in 3D, this allows you to see everything at once, to see all of the structure and then you can move around and view it from any angle," said Pratt.
He describes the table as a "giant iPad" for doctors. "A lot of devices that we use every day, iPads, iPhones, the reason they're very popular and successful is they are easy to interact with, so the Anatomage table has tried to take some of that technology, bring it over into this platform," he said.
At St Mary's Hospital, surgeon Aimee Di Marco is full of praise for the device.
"The Anatomage is a fantastic tool. We are aware really of two major applications for it, but have other ideas in the pipeline. The first is teaching and the second is use in surgical intervention and planning for individual patient operations," she said.
It has already proved useful in real-life surgery and Di Marco thinks it will soon be integrated with robotic surgery.
"On an individual patient basis, when we're doing complex operations it's very helpful to have some precise guidance for each patient about what to expect and what we're going to encounter, both in terms of planning the operation and then even during the operation there is scope for using this technology fused with minimally-invasive, that's with keyhole and robotic surgery," said Di Marco.
The table is also helping Di Marco's anatomy students.
"Once one has dissected a particular area that's really, that's it. You can only do it once and you can't reproduce that exact dissection of the individual cadaver. That's got particular implications for less skilled and newer students who may cut through a nerve that they wanted to see and they can't then go back, whereas with this kind of technology you can just reproduce again and again what you want to see," she said.
Di Marco says third-year students about to put their studies into practice with real operations find the table particularly useful as a revision aid.
Previously teaching hospitals had to rely on donated bodies to enable students to learn about human anatomy, but donations have been in decline in recent years. Even if hospitals do receive a suitable cadaver, preparing the body is expensive and requires expertise.
Based in San Jose, California, Anatomage specialise in 3D medical technology. Since taking the table to the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference in Los Angeles, the firm has received interest from a number of teaching hospitals.