In the 1966 sci-fi classic "Fantastic Voyage," a team of medical experts is reduced to microscopic size and injected inside a human being. They engage in a fantastical battle with an army of white corpuscles, take a roller-coaster ride through the cavernous chambers of the heart and get a microbe's view of the human body, in all its Technicolor glory and anatomical wonder.
Technologies are under development today that in the not-so-distant future may permit medical researchers to explore
the human body much like the microscopic stars of "Fantastic Voyage" -- by plumbing the depths of the anatomy from within.
It is called virtual reality, or VR, and it is a mind-blowing concept: the use of computers to create an illusion of reality that is so precise, so utterly lifelike as to be indiscernible from the real thing. In its purest form, proponents say, virtual reality will give people a way to enter micro and macro worlds that are too dangerous or impossible to enter otherwise.
Like the human body.
Rutgers University and Bell Labs are working on a VR project that will, in the tradition of the 1966 cinematic explorers, allow medical researchers to hike through the human body like an anatomical forest.
And how might this technological feat be accomplished?
Easy, says Dr. S. Kicha Ganapathy, director of the machine perception research department of Bell Labs: First load scads of data about the human body into a computer. Then use sophisticated computer technologies and VR techniques to "transform" researchers into a small blip on a computer screen that has "eyes" and "ears." Throw in a joystick that allows operators to "feel" whatever the blip comes into contact with, and researchers will be able to wander through the anatomy with the ease of strolling through an open house on a Sunday afternoon.
"It will allow you to move around in the human body the way you would [walk around] a specimen in a museum," says Dr. Ganapathy, a consultant on the Rutgers project.
As envisioned by Dr. Ganapathy, researchers who wanted to examine, say, the blocked arteries of a heart could scale themselves down and, using the blip as a vicarious observer, travel through the congested heart passages for a first-hand look at the problem.
Want to test the elasticity of an artery wall? Push the blip into the wall, then wait for the tactile feedback to reverberate through the joystick. Want a closer look at a tissue section? Use the joystick to navigate deep inside the artery wall, then blow up the picture for a closer look. Better yet, lift out the section and rotate it in a circle, at different angles, just to make sure you don't miss anything.
Virtual surgery is another possibility in the cosmic world of VR.
In a VR environment, doctors could do dry runs of risky procedures on computer replications of actual patients, allowing them to smooth out their technique before stepping foot into the operating room. The upshot: better health care for patients.
That's the idea at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where doctors have been using a VR-based image-processing system for years to produce 3-D, color pictures from CAT scans. Doctors routinely refer to those computerized images to help diagnose ailments and decide on treatments for high-risk patients.
When the system was introduced to the radiology department five years ago, the most it could do was reproduce a 3-D color picture of a section of bone that could be viewed from different angles. Even that modest display took a Herculean effort to complete: Medical technicians from Hopkins and special-effect experts from Lucas Films, the Hollywood studio that produced "Star Wars," spent more than 17 hours working together behind closed doors on the project to produce the first image.
"At the time we thought it was the most incredible thing we had ever seen," recalls Dr. Elliot Fishman, a professor of radiology who was at the maiden screening. "We were totally amazed."
Today, that same image takes less than a minute to complete. And the upgraded system can do much more than flash a picture of a piece of femur: It can call to the computer screen any image -- or any part of an image -- from a patient's CAT scan, providing an electronic porthole through which the body's organs, skeletal structure and circulatory system can be studied in detail. Images can be shrunk, enlarged, rotated and electronically "sliced" an infinite number of ways.
Visualization of images before surgery allows doctors to examine the interior of the human body "as if you were holding it in your hand," says Dr. Fishman.
Those close encounters have had a discernible effect on patient care. Internal studies have found that 30 percent of physicians change their treatment plan after consulting with the computerized patient file.