Md. gives partner for 'Visible Man' 'Visible Woman': The National Library of Medicine has photographed in minute detail the body of a Maryland woman and made the digitized data available to researchers.

November 29, 1995|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

A 59-year-old Maryland woman who died of heart disease has won a measure of computerized immortality as the National Library of Medicine's "Visible Woman."

Her body, which she donated to science through the Maryland State Anatomy Board, has been frozen, scanned, sliced, photographed and digitized into 39 billion bytes of electronic data.

Yesterday, that data became available by computer to medical schools, corporations, universities and individuals -- anyone who might learn or profit from the ability to digitally "dissect" a typical female human body.

The woman, whose identity has not been disclosed, joins the NLM's "Visible Man" -- a 38-year-old prisoner executed in Texas -- whose digitized remains went public a year ago.

With the NLM's data, a fast computer, and the right software, one can examine detailed cross-sections of the Visible Humans, or manipulate and "operate" on whole organs.

With too few real cadavers available, the medical community "really needed a digital cadaver in order to study anatomy," said Dr. Michael J. Ackerman. He is the library's assistant director for high performance computing and communications. The library is part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

With real bodies on a computer, he said, "surgeons could do simulations of surgical approaches. They could see in 3-D as opposed to pictures in books."

Steven E. Barkley, director of academic information systems at the University of Maryland Medical School, said students there are being introduced to the Visible Humans, but do not yet have the sophisticated software to make full use of them.

When they do, he said, it will allow students to "look at things separated out from the rest of the body -- just the nerves, or muscles separated from the bone. It also gives you the ability to generate things three-dimensionally, and it allows you to look inside things."

The data has proven useful in some very unexpected ways, Dr. Ackerman said. Licensed to 374 institutions or individuals in 25 countries, "it is being applied to educational products for kindergarten on up. It is being used to model crash dummies, build better chairs, and three artists are using it as a model to do better art. It's really ending up in places that we never dreamed of."

The $1.4 million Visible Humans project was conceived in 1988, and a federal contract was awarded in 1991 to the University of Colorado at Denver. Under the supervision of the NLM and the university, state anatomy boards in Colorado, Maryland and Texas began to search for suitable cadavers.

"We were looking for as normal [an individual] as possible, which means no broken bones, no cancers, no deteriorating diseases, no operations visible on X-rays," Dr. Ackerman said. "Somebody who was in perfect health and all of a sudden died."

It took two years to find the convict who became the Visible Man. He sought to donate his organs after his execution, but the drugs used to kill him made his organs unsuitable. But he was perfect as the Visible Man, and he was eventually selected from among 12 candidates.

Little has been disclosed about the Marylander who became the Visible Woman, or why her body was unsuitable for organ donation.

Dr. Ackerman knew only that "she died of a cardiovascular problem and willed her body to science." And although her heart was slightly enlarged, "she was in perfect health for our purposes." She was chosen from among six candidates.

Her body was shipped by air to Denver. There, extensive magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and CT scans were performed. The body was then frozen whole in a blue gel.

Her scans, and those of the other candidates, were then reviewed for more than two years by a committee of radiologists and anatomists at the NLM to decide which woman was "normal enough" to become the Visible Human.

Finally in March 1994, Dr. Ackerman said, the Maryland woman )) was chosen, and her body -- still frozen to 70 degrees below zero -- was readied for imaging.

For four months, Dr. Ackerman said, a milling machine slowly scraped away her rock-hard remains, one-third of a millimeter at a time, from head to toe.

With the removal of each layer, the remaining cross-section was photographed with a film camera and a digital camera. By the time the cameras reached her feet, there were 5,000 digital images -- each with a corresponding CT scan and MRI image.

If a user were to reassemble the images of her head, Dr. Ackerman said, the woman's face would be recognizable -- a kind of computer death mask. That might jeopardize her anonymity, he agreed. But if the NLM was to distort her face or the structure beneath it, it would compromise the data.

"We're hopeful that if she is recognizable, that people will respect her anonymity," he said. "There is nothing we can do."

It could not be learned whether the woman's family is aware of her fate. Her pulverized remains were cremated and returned to the Anatomy Board for disposal.

Sample images from the Visible Man can be seen on the National Library of Medicine's home page on the World Wide Web. The address is: http://www.nlm.nih.gov

Acquiring the whole data set is not something for the merely curious. Users must first apply for a license from the NLM. It is free, Dr. Ackerman said, but "we need to know who they are and how they are going to use it so we can know what's going on and tell Congress and the public where their tax money went."

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