Will 3D printed anatomical replicas replace traditional cadaver use in medical education?

Herophilus, the physician known as the "father of anatomy," was the first to document his work dissecting human bodies to discover the mysteries of anatomy.

Once the scientific community saw the early work, teaching anatomy has employed using cadavers universally in professional medical training.

But accessing human cadavers has always been problematic – and controversial.

The rise of organized anatomy schools during the eighteenth and nineteenth century in England and Scotland caused a moral rift as a larger percentage of Christians were convinced of the literal raising of the dead at the end of the world. Their belief that the souls of dissected bodies would be excluded from heaven meant that the earthly remains of criminals – often executed for their crimes and outcast from society – were used as the first cadavers. As demand for cadavers increased, grave robbers set out to feed the demand.

Even a medical eminence like the anatomist Thomas Sewell (personal physician to no less than three U.S. presidents) was convicted of following the grisly practice when he was caught digging up a corpse to be used for dissection in 1818. William Harvey, famous for his discovery and cataloging of the human circulatory system, dissected his own father and sister in search of knowledge.

3D printed vs. preserved cadaverGlutaraldehyde, and later formaldehyde, are the principal chemicals used to embalm and preserve human bodies, but the yellow stains left over in treated tissues interfere with certain observations and tests.

But those days are likely to end for good as researchers at Australia's Monash University have created what they call the 3D Printed Anatomy Series. It's a kit which includes representations of all the major body parts scientists and doctors need to learn anatomy. Consisting of limbs, chest, abdomen, head and neck models, the kits may well bring an end what has always been a dangerous and messy practice.

Michelle Quayle of Monash

3D printed anatomical cross section"For centuries cadavers bequested to medical schools have been used to teach students about human anatomy, a practice that continues today," said Paul McMenamin, Director of the University's Centre for Human Anatomy Education. "Many medical schools report either a shortage of cadavers, or find their handling and storage too expensive as a result of strict regulations governing where cadavers can be dissected."

It's been a serious problem, and the research team at Monash thinks they have a viable alternative.

"Without the ability to look inside the body and see the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and blood vessels, it's incredibly hard for students to understand human anatomy. We believe our version, which looks just like the real thing, will make a huge difference," McMenamin says.

The 3D Printed Anatomy Series was created from scans (a combination of X-ray CT or body surface scans) which are then employed to create 3D models of the various body parts to be printed in full-color plaster powder or plastic.

"It's a really sophisticated means of capturing information in very thin layers," McMenamin says. "We can then color that model and convert that to a file format that the 3D printer uses to recreate, layer by layer, a three-dimensional body part to scale."

The report details how 3D printing is used to create reproductions of prosected human cadavers and other anatomical specimens. The result is that the models can be used in facilities in any country – even those where cultural and ethical issues associated with cadaver specimens might arise – where using real cadavers could be frowned upon.

Samples of Monash-printed anatomical models