Story Highlights• Medicine benefiting greatly from virtual reality
• Anatomical detail of the human atlas is extremely accessible
• CAVEman designed to look like a real human and can be sized to any scale
By Matthew Knight for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Over the past decade the medical world has been the beneficiary of some of the most promising advances in virtual reality technologies, transforming the lives of patients and medical students as well as equipping doctors with more efficient tools and means of treatment.
Last month scientists in Canada unveiled a new 4-D virtual reality human atlas. It looks set to further revolutionize the way doctors and scientists study the functions of the human body and combat disease.
Dubbed the CAVEman by its inventors at the University of Calgary in western Canada, it is the world's first complete object-orientated computer model of the human body. It allows scientists to literally step inside their experiments by translating medical and genomic data into 4-D images.
The project was initially the brainchild of Kasterstener Inc, a massage therapy school in Red Deer, Alberta who wanted to make computer models that could be utilized for a massage therapy training program.
After two years of mapping all the muscles and bones of the body that the researchers at the University of Calgary realized the potential of the project to go much further, and soon they found themselves constructing a virtual map of every detail of the human body.
When the work began researchers hoped that they would be able to use the data recorded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States -- namely the Visible Human Project which is creating a complete, anatomically detailed, three-dimensional representations of the normal male and female human bodies.
But the NIH work, which involved cutting cross-sections of human cadavers at 1mm intervals, didn't allow the Canadian researchers enough detail to usefully assist the building of their virtual model.
Instead, the team building the human atlas had to rely on, and build their data from something a little more old-fashioned -- anatomy textbooks. Fundamental body systems and organs were turned into animated drawings by a graphic artist, and converted into Java 3-D images.
Painstaking attention to detail
Dr Christoph Sensen, Director of the Sun Center of Excellence for Visual Genomics at the University of Calgary Faculty of Medicine talked to CNN about the six years of painstaking work, which has gone into making the CAVEman. "We had to make all the different objects that compose the human body from scratch." he explained, "We had medical specialists who oversaw the construction of the specific organs by reference to anatomy books. Our lead anatomist then had to go through the Terminologia Anatomica [the internationally approved textbook of anatomical nomenclature] and tie the whole thing together."
This is an extraordinary task in itself, as it required individually recording more than 3000 separate body parts.
Because the human atlas has four dimensions (length, width, height and time) it has the potential to enable researchers to observe illnesses as they progress and to literally see the effects of their interventions -- such as drug therapy -- on these processes.
It will also help scientists learn more about the genetic make-up of diseases such as cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer's.
"This technology is a powerful tool for my research into how genetic mutations lead to developmental problems such as cleft lip or palate," says Dr Benedikt Hallgrimsson, associate professor of cell biology and anatomy at the University of Calgary. "As the technology grows, it will be useful for diverse studies of growth and development, both for creating predictive models and also for complex visualization."
The anatomical detail of the human atlas is also extremely accessible; more so than any other model. "CAVEman is designed to look like a real human, but can also be sized to any scale we want," explains Dr Sensen. "We can display all or only a few selected components of the model at any given time."
Scientists can tailor their model to suit their patient, taking off layers of skin, muscle and bone to focus on a specific organ. It's as if you are taking a trip around the human body. Importantly, patients will be able to understand more about their own ailments and learn exactly where and how they affect them.
Not only will the human atlas play a vital role in complex medical research it will also prove to be a vital learning tool for medical students. "Because it uses Java 3-D, it can run on laptops, workstations, Linux machines, Macs, you name it," said Dr Sensen. "We get a lot of requests from teaching labs around the world to make a body for anatomy study."
The real beauty of the human atlas is that it can teach anyone, at any learning level something about the workings of the human body. In the future it is hoped that a lower resolution model could make its way into the classroom, transforming the learning experience of the next generation of school children.
Dr Sensen plans to carry on improving the human atlas for the foreseeable future. "I'm 47 years old now and I plan to retire when I'm 60. So I have another 13 years to go."
And there is plenty for Dr Sensen and his team to be getting on with. "We haven't been able to address some of the problems that people would like us to," he says, "For example, we are not currently able to model on the cellular level. The tip of your finger contains 1bn cells. No computer that we have can operate at that level today, but in the future I think the human atlas could be used in this way."
The human atlas dubbed the CAVEman by its inventors