Part-Time Science Plastination takes the slime out of body parts

October 04, 1993|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Staff Writer

"Plastics."

-- Bombshell career advice from "The Graduate."

Today's weird science lesson is on plastination.

Step this way -- into the basement (where else) of the Bressler Research Building on the campus of the University of Maryland at Baltimore. The place smells like biology class on frog-dissection day.

The rooms inside the State Anatomy Board keep freeze-dried cadavers and donated organs -- as well as cremated, name-tagged remains that are shelved until the Anatomy Board's annual, communal burial.

But something else is here.

Inside a laboratory, a tray features a spread of body parts: hearts with quadruple bypass stitches intact, sectioned kidneys, clogged aortas, flappy knee joints, hands and some bulbous beige thing. They're not gross -- honest. The parts don't smell. They aren't decaying or oozing formaldehyde. They have been plastinated.

Anatomy Board director Ronald Wade injects plastic into real, cadavered body parts to create durable, fume-less and slime-less specimens for medical clinics and classrooms. Mr. Wade, the only person in Maryland licensed to plastinate, has quietly fathered a cottage program where doctors and dentists check out plastinated parts and return them as if they were library books.

"Here you get the real anatomy -- not something sitting in formaldehyde," says Mr. Wade, who plastinates about two dozen specimens a month.

Plastination started in 1978 at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, where they patented the process of removing water from tissues and replacing it with sili- cone, polyester or epoxy. Anatomist Gunther von Hagens hatched the idea of mak- ing lasting specimens that keep their natural appearance.

And look, mom, no gloves. Plastinated parts can be touched, laminated and, if the mood strikes, juggled.

About 25 specimens a month are loaned to area paramedics, dentists and doctors -- such as Vincent DiFabio. He's at the lab, taking pictures for a seminar in Florida.

"This is wonderful! Here's an eyeball, here's the fat around the eye. This is fantastic," says Dr. DiFabio, an oral and facial cosmetic surgeon from Frederick. The man has a sliver of face in his hands.

Mr. Wade had cleanly sawed a plastinated face into 10, 5-millimeter specimens. Each wafer sequentially reveals the tissues, muscles, sinuses and orbital block containing the eye. Gripping this plastinated puzzle is like holding a three-dimensional and rubbery Cat scan.

"When people say my eyes hurt because I got a sinus infection, now I know why," Dr. DiFabio says, staring at the eye and the nearby sinus. What a great teaching tool, he says.

"I gotta take more pictures."

Besides eyeballing a sinus, you can literally point to a heart attack. On the tray, a plastinated heart has been dyed blue and red for the branching arteries and veins. Mr. Wade points to the heart's rump. There, a small territory of white indicates a loss of circulation in the world's greatest muscle. There, the cause of death.

A few years ago, Mr. Wade envisioned a full-scale plastination program. A specialized staff would produce maybe 1,000 plastinated specimens a month, and charge $250 for a heart.

Budget cuts

But budget cuts grounded his pilot program. Mr. Wade says he just piddles in plastination -- he's busy enough directing the Anatomy Board and the university's Anatomical Facility.

Nationwide, plastination is done on a small scale. The process is performed at about 12 dental, veterinary and medical facilities in states such as New York, Florida, Texas and Virginia, Mr. Wade says. The start-up cost is about $20,000 for the equipment. Mr. Wade figures it costs him about $20 to plastinate a heart.

How does he plastinate?

First, a heart or hand or whatever is retrieved from a cadaver. The tissue must be dehydrated -- drained of virtually all its water -- or it will mummify and be useless.

The specimen is immersed in a bucket of acetone and placed in a freezer set at minus 28 degrees. The acetone draws the water out of the tissue.

About four weeks later, the part is ready for what they call "impregnation." It's lowered into a vacuum chamber, where the acetone is boiled off. Tiny bubbles of acetone are a good sign. Then, for reasons we didn't quite catch, the acetone and silicone swap places. Acetone out, silicone in. The specimen is being plastinated. It's then cured in all its cellular glory.

Almost every time.

"This broke my heart," Mr. Wade says, grabbing a heart from a cardboard box of rejects.

The poor heart hadn't been properly prepared for dehydration. Like a net with gaping holes, the heart's membranes never held the silicone. The heart simply shrunk and is good for nothing.

Teaching tools

Most times, though, the process works. Paul Anderson, who teaches physical therapy at the University of Maryland, has a plastinated elbow, knee and upper quarter section of a body. Dr. Anderson requested the plastinated specimens from Mr. Wade last year, and the parts were ready for his anatomy class that started in June.

"These are wonderful teaching tools. They are virtually indestructible sources of references for our students," Dr. Anderson says. "You are seeing the Real McCoy."

But if you want to see McCoy's real parts, don't drop in on Mr. Wade at the Anatomy Board. He's not running a museum.

For the public, the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington has plastinated organs. They share space with such untouchable specimens as President James Garfield's severed spine and the ivory fragments of Abraham Lincoln's skull.

Weird science loves company.

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