Colorado woman donates body to science for digital cadaver project

World Today

Cadavers are often used by medical students and physicians to study anatomy, but there’s now a growing demand for a digital version of the human body for research.

American scientists are taking on the challenge, by finding volunteers to donate their remains.

CGTN’s Hendrik Sybrandy filed this report on one deceased participant in Colorado, who’s on her way to becoming virtually immortal.

Like many in the science field, Vic Spitzer spends a lot of time on a computer. When CGTN visited him, we found him cataloging parts of a human body.

Spitzer is a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, and has helped pioneer the Visible Human Project.  The project is an effort to create detailed, three-dimensional views of the human body by slicing a dead body and photographing it after each slice is removed.

One woman, Susan Potter, was well aware of Spitzer’s work, and first contacted him back in 2000.

“Two weeks later, she rolled her wheelchair into my fifth floor office with a newspaper in her hand and said, I want to do this,” Spitzer explained.

Potter, who’d had 26 surgeries and suffered from multiple diseases, wasn’t the ideal candidate. 

“I said, I will agree to section you and image you so that we can show your anatomy to the world, if you’ll let us record your life,” Spitzer said.

Potter, Spitzer said, was driven by a desire to instill compassion in health care providers, and made her wishes clear to all.

 “That was my last will and testament, to leave something behind that would have an impact on the whole human race,” Potter said.

Spitzer thinks full body digital cadavers viewed online can help advance medical training and research, particularly in places where cadavers for study are hard to find.

“Faster learning. It’ll be more ubiquitous. People will be able to study internal anatomy that don’t have good cadaver access today,” Spitzer said.

Potter died in 2015 at age 87. Two years later, the work of turning her into a virtual human began. Her frozen remains were cut into 27,000 hair-thin slices. As a sharp blade removed each layer, a picture was taken. Spitzer’s construction of Potter’s body map has already been revealing.

“After looking at the inside of her body, I see pain,” he said. “I’m doing something she wanted and I’m doing something I wanted, so I was okay emotionally with it.”

Besides the U.S., only South Korea and China have undertaken similar projects. Spitzer, who believes a library of virtual humans is the future, hopes Potter will be completely labeled and ready for study within three years.