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Virtual surgery becoming a reality

Imagine the creation of a virtual human. One that is so real it would bleed and show all the bone structures. A crash dummy that would allow medical students and physicians to simulated surgery before going into the operating room. A virtual human that would contain all the standard male and female anatomy and digitize it for the computer, making the information accessible on the Internet.
USF graduate student Mark Coty is not just imagining it – he’s making it happen.
“With enough effort, an entire digital human body could be developed that can be used not just for visualization, but as a virtual guinea pig for research and surgical training,” Coty said. “With information like anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, material properties and even histology, the virtual patient of the future can respond to procedures just as real humans (do).”
Don Helbelink, a professor of anatomy at USF currently on sabbatical at the University of Michigan, has been working with Coty on this project since 1997.
During their research, they came across the Visible Human Project, which was started by the National Library of Medicine in 1989 to give an alternative to textbooks to medical students. The project now includes researchers from dozens of medical schools in more than 40 countries. After it was completed in 1994, it was known as the first project to build a digital image database that contains the complete data of humans.
In a recent article in the St. Petersburg Times, Helbelink said that the software needed to create virtual patients is available today. He also said anything that can be sliced can be made into a 3-D model, but the real challenge is making the virtual human real.
“What we’re doing is reverse engineering the Visible Human Project – it gave us a data set to now start segmenting,” Coty said.
Coty and Helbelink work on finite element modeling. The field that Helbelink and Coty are specializing in is digital flexor biomechanics, or more simply, hand biomechanics.
Helbelink, while at University of Michigan, will be focusing on the numerous mechanical structures in the hand including veins, muscles, bones, nerves and soft tissue. Coty said they are trying to get the computer to recognize “the tissue’s specific material properties.”
Bone, which has a different material property from skin, also has a different property from muscle. It is this material property difference that will determine how far the knife will enter the skin, given the force of the surgeon’s hand in a virtual surgery.
In order to get the pictures for the 3-D models, scientists used human cadavers.
Two-dimensional digital magnetic resonance images (MRI), digitized photographic images from cryosectioning and also computerized tomography (obtaining pictures of the interior of the body) are done.
From these images, structures are being reverse-engineered to create a three-dimensional digital “clone” of the original cadavers. Using these “in-silico” anatomical models, objective quantitative data that was previously impossible to obtain can now be extracted at the click of a mouse. Coty and Helbelink have been working on making these 3-D images react like a human would.
What Coty said he and Helbelink have made is a cross between engineering and medicine, and they are at the forefront of their field. Coty said the University of Michigan has one of the largest and best-funded medical research institutions in the country.
“USF is ahead as far as techniques; they’re dealing with stuff now that we dealt with three years ago. USF is at the cutting edge. It’s very exciting,” Coty said.
Coty said this research will offer a new world of possibilities to other researchers and doctors in the future. When the reversal project is completed, models will be used as guinea pigs for new procedures.
“An analogy to this is an automobile that is tested before the first part is built, and this is done on a computer,” Coty said. “This project is taking baby steps towards testing procedures on computers before they are done on people.”
Coty will be attending the University of Michigan to do his post-doctoral work in the spring. He will continue working on the virtual patient project while he is there.

Contact Annie Curnow at