Virtual patient under the knife on hi-tech operating table

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Media captionWATCH: Surgeon Aimee Di Marco shows how to cut up a digital cadaver

At St Mary's Hospital in London, surgeon Aimee Di Marco is about to cut up a body.

There will be no blood, no need for a scalpel or other medical instruments, and afterwards she will be able to place the organs back in the body, reattach the bones and blood vessels, and put the skin back on.

The body in question is a virtual one, appearing on a touchscreen "operating table". It could represent the future for both teaching would-be doctors about anatomy and preparing for real-life operations.

Imperial College, the partner to St Mary's Hospital, purchased the table at a cost of £60,000 nine months ago. It is the first of its kind in Europe.

Anatomy study

The same length and size as a normal operating table, the "cadaver" on the screen, nicknamed Melanie, is a virtual body created using a mix of graphics and real CT scans of the body.

Students and surgeons can interact with it either via touch or with a traditional mouse. The body can be stripped back to expose internal organs, areas can be enlarged for more detailed study and the software can work with real patient data.

Image caption Melanie can be studied in great detail

Dr Philip Pratt, research fellow at Imperial College, describes the table as a "giant iPad".

As with a normal computer, USB sticks and other devices can be attached to the table and data added. The table can hold up to one terabyte, which is equivalent to about 1,000 patient cases.

It has already proved very useful in real-life surgery.

"We had a patient with kidney cancer and we took the software to theatre. Previously the urologist would have just had the standard pre-operative 2D image but this showed them the whole kidney," explained Ms Di Marco.

One of the biggest issues for surgeons attempting such an operation is to be able to accurately locate arteries and veins, as these vary from person to person.

"If you can only see data a slice at a time it is more challenging and you have to create a 3D image in your mind. With this software it creates a 3D picture so when you go in you know what to expect."

Revision aid

The other big area where the table is proving its worth is in the study of anatomy.

Image caption The software gives up-close views of the body's organs

"This isn't to replace traditional cadaveric studies but to supplement them," said Dr Pratt.

The benefits as a teaching aid are obvious.

"With a body you can only dissect it once, whereas the table boots up and starts as many times as you want," said Dr Pratt.

Ms Di Marco agrees.

"It is clean, easy to use and you can put the software on any computer, which is particularly useful for planning surgeries," she said.

She has found that third-year students who are about to put their studies into practice with real operations find the table particularly useful as a revision aid.

Previously teaching hospitals had to rely on bodies being donated, to give students a real taste of the human body.

But, said Ms Di Marco, donations over the last 20 years had steadily decreased.

Even if hospitals get a suitable cadaver, it is expensive to prepare the body and requires a good deal of expertise.

Robotic future

The table has been designed by US firm Anatomage. In February, its chief executive Jack Choi took the table to the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference in Los Angeles.

Image caption Ancient meets modern: Mummy patient

Since the TED video went online, the firm has had interest from 10 other teaching hospitals.

Mr Choi sees a bright future for the table.

"We want to develop it so that it can help with specialist training and we also see a future for it to be integrated with robotic surgery," he told the BBC.

The firm is also moving into digital forensics and the latest "patient" on the table is an Egyptian mummy.

Experts are hopeful that the "virtual mummy" with offer up some vital clues about Egyptian life as ancient meets modern.

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