Penn Dental Medicine Anatomy Dissection Lab Goes Virtual


Michael Speirs in the virtual anatomy dissection lab within Penn Dental Medicine.

Philadelphia — For Penn Dental Medicine’s first- and second-year students, the spring semester has historically meant a trip down campus to the medical school for cadaver dissection labs. This spring, those labs have looked quite different, going high-tech with the introduction of a new 3D virtual anatomy lab within Penn Dental Medicine. The new lab came to fruition over the past year in response to changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the pandemic shifted instruction campus-wide to remote learning last spring, the medical school closed its cadaver labs. Uncertain when the labs may again become available, the School moved forward with an instructional alternative – outfitting a space on the 6th floor of the School’s Levy building with virtual dissection units.

“Prior to the pandemic, we had been looking into the possibility of acquiring this technology as a resource for our students to continue to study anatomy beyond their dissection labs in their first and second years,” says Michael Speirs, who directs the School’s anatomy course and dissection labs. “But with the medical school shutting down the cadaver labs due to COVID, it became imperative to establish this facility.”

The space is outfitted with two Anatomage virtual dissection tables – one that is in the horizontal position and one that can be oriented both vertically and horizontally. There are also three 80-inch plasma screens so when students are in the space those who would not be at table can see what is happening.

The tables feature fully digitized, real human 3D anatomy systems of four individuals (a Korean and American man and woman). Dr. Speirs explains that the American male and female cadavers were digitized by the National Library of Medicine through its Visible Human Project in the 1990s. Through the software developed for these units, the virtual cadavers can be rotated, sectioned, and dissected.

“With just a touch of your finger or stylus you have the ability to manipulate the body, for example, I can choose a specific section or make a cut like a skin flap with a virtual scalpel and perform a dissection from the surface of the body all the way to the skeleton,” says Speirs. “You can also ask the software to identify a specific bone or organ or show just the nerves and blood vessels and their relationship to each other.” It also visualizes the direction of blood flow in veins and arteries, and there is an option to upload data from a patient into the unit to create a 3D image of the case that can be analyzed and dissected as well.

The virtual dissection labs using the units began in late January with Speirs performing the dissections on the units. Using Zoom, the students logged into the lab sessions to receive a real-time feed of the dissection directly from the unit to their computer screen in high resolution. This spring semester has included the head and neck dissection lab for first-year students and two labs for second-year students – head and neck dissection, which they didn’t have last spring due to COVID-19, and the full body dissection lab that is part of the second-year curriculum. While all of these labs were remote through February starting in March, as faculty and students were vaccinated, small groups of 12 students began coming into the lab to participate in virtual dissection on the units.

While it is unclear at this point if or when Penn Dental Medicine students will return to cadavers for their dissection labs, Speirs notes that these new units are the best alternative and can support student learning in a variety of ways.

“Anatomy is critical for preparing to enter the clinic and beyond,” says Speirs. “Over the years, students have shared how very grateful they are for the solid foundation in anatomy the School has given them – with this new technology, we’re continuing to do just that.”