[Penn Dental Medicine News] Penn Dental Medicine Anatomy Dissection Lab Goes Virtual

Dr. Michael Speirs in the virtual anatomy dissection lab within Penn Dental Medicine.(Source:Penn Dental Medicine)

For first- and second-year students at Penn Dental Medicine, the spring semester has always meant a journey down campus to the medical school for corpse dissection laboratories. This spring, those laboratories have taken on a high-tech makeover, thanks to the addition of a new 3D virtual anatomy lab inside Penn Dental Medicine’s facilities. During the last year, a new lab has been built to accommodate developments brought forth by the COVID-19 epidemic.

When the epidemic forced the university to switch from on-campus to online study last spring, the medical school had to shut its cadaver laboratories. Because it was unclear when the laboratories would be accessible again, the School decided to pursue an alternate method of teaching, which included equipping a room on the 6th level of the School’s Levy building with virtual dissection units.

Before the pandemic, Dr. Michael Speirs, who is in charge of the School’s anatomy course and dissection labs, was looking into the possibility of acquiring this technology as a resource for our students to continue their anatomy studies beyond their dissection labs in their first and second years of study. As a result of COVID-related closures at the medical school, the establishment of this institution was deemed absolutely necessary.

In addition to two Anatomage virtual dissection tables, which are both in the horizontal position and can be positioned both vertically and horizontally, the area is also equipped with a virtual dissection table that can be oriented both horizontally and vertically. When students are in the area, there are three 80-inch plasma displays so that individuals who are not seated at tables can still watch what is going on around them.

The tables are equipped with genuine human 3D anatomy systems of four people that have been completely scanned (a Korean and American man and woman). During the 1990s, Dr. Speirs says that the National Library of Medicine’s Visible Human Project scanned the cadavers of American males and females and made them available for research. The virtual cadavers may be rotated, sectioned, and dissected using the software that has been created specifically for these units.

According to Dr. Speirs, manipulating the body is as simple as touching it with your finger or stylus. “For example, I may select a particular area or cut with a virtual scalpel like a skin flap and conduct a dissection from the surface of the body all the way to the skeleton,” she explains. In addition, you may request that the program identify a particular bone or organ, or that it just display nerves and blood arteries and their relationships to one another.” There is also an option to input data from a patient into the device in order to generate a 3D picture of the case, which can then be examined and dissected.

Dr. Speirs performed the dissections on the units as part of the virtual dissection labs that started in late January and will continue through the summer. Through the use of Zoom, the students who attended the lab sessions were able to see a real-time feed of the dissection that was broadcast straight to their computer screen in high quality. In addition to the head and neck dissection lab for first-year students, this semester’s schedule includes two laboratories for second-year students — head and neck dissection, which they did not have last spring due to COVID-19, and the whole body dissection lab, which is part of the second-year curriculum. While all of these laboratories were remote throughout the month of February, once staff and students were immunized, small groups of 12 students started coming into the lab to engage in virtual dissection on the units beginning in March.

Even though it is currently unknown if or when Penn Dental Medicine students will be able to use cadavers in their dissection laboratories, Dr. Speirs believes that these new units are the greatest option and can help students learn in a number of ways.

As Dr. Speirs points out, “anatomy is essential for those preparing to join the clinic and beyond.” “Over the years, students have expressed their gratitude for the strong foundation in anatomy that the School has provided them – and with this new technology, we will be able to continue to do so.”

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