Virtual twin could save your life

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Published: Saturday 14th February 2015 by The News Editor

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Every person may one day have a “virtual twin” containing all their organs, bones and nerves that can be used by surgeons to plan and rehearse complex operations.

The “cadaver in the cloud” idea is not so far fetched to doctors who are already using the technology in top clinics and medical schools.

Soldiers on their way to combat zones may be the first to have virtual clones created of their bodies. On the battlefield, a wounded soldier’s digitised self could be used to help army medics carry out urgent reconstructive surgery.

The technology uses a table-sized touch-sensitive screen to present full-scale 3D images of the human body that can be stripped down layer by layer to reveal reveal organs, blood vessels, nerves and bones from any point of view.

Demonstrating one of the £45,500 machines at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in San Jose, California, orthopaedic surgeon Dr James Mah from the University of Nevada said: “To a small extent virtual twinning is already happening. The idea is to image somebody when they are in a healthy state so the data is available if it’s needed at a later point.

“There are military applications. Unfortunately some of our veterans have lost limbs and other tissue, and the challenge is to reconstruct them. A virtual template in the field would be very useful, and that’s been in discussion.

“I have been to meetings where he topic has been brought up and discussed as a proposal to manage some of the casualties among our veterans.”

During the demonstration he showed how it was possible to rotate the cadaver image around, tilt its body up, and probe deeper to uncover tissues and skeleto-muscular features in fine detail and vibrant colours.

“At any point we can rotate through and zoom in and move to any area,” said Dr Mah. “We can get deeper into the anatomy until we see organs, liver, stomach, intestines … eventually we can even go through and remove the skeleton. We can keep looking until finally we’re at the very basic brain and brain stem.”

Picking up an on-screen “virtual scalpel”, he sliced the head in two to reveal the brain in cross section, telling his audience: “I’m kind of a hack surgeon today.”

The machine, made by the San Jose company Anatomage, is already widely used in medical schools and increasingly is being installed in hospitals to guide the hands of surgeons.

Data from an individual patient’s CT and MRI scans can be fed into the device to provide images that aid the surgical team and improve outcomes.

Four of the imaging tables belong to the world famous Mayo Clinic in the US, and in the UK they can also be found at Imperial College and University of Edinburgh.

Limitless levels of detail can be presented depending on the data used to generate the images, even down to the cellular level, said Dr Mah.

The next step is to reproduce movement in the image with precision accuracy, he added.

“There are a number of technologies that are either video or ultrasound-based that can track the movements of points on the skin,” said Dr Mah. “You can make the model move in a very realistic fashion.”

Published: Saturday 14th February 2015 by The News Editor

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