Doctors train on Texas murderer

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THE BODIES of a Texan murderer and a Maryland housewife are being used for target practice by doctors learning how to carry out brain surgery and insert catheters before they lay a finger on a living patient.

Joseph Jernigan, 39, a convicted killer who was executed by lethal injection on 5 August 1993, donated his body to science and has become one of the two most visible humans in history. His corpse, along with that of a woman from Maryland who died of a heart attack in 1995 aged 59, were cut into thousands of slices and photographed to create an electronic version of Gray's Anatomy for the 21st century.

The contribution made by the "visible man" and the "visible woman" to medical science was celebrated at a conference last week which revealed a wealth of new applications for the project started in the early Nineties by the US National Library of Medicine.

Thousands of X-rays, magnetic resonance images and photographs of cross- sections of their bodies were used to assemble various computerised cadavers, now available on the Internet, to researchers and medical schools around the world. Material from the Visible Human Project has since been used by more than 1,000 centres in 30 countries.

The visible humans have been used as the basis for surgery simulators designed to train surgeons in the same way that flight simulators train pilots. Doctors can rehearse brain and prostate operations, bronchoscopies - inserting a tube into the lung - and catheterisation - inserting a tube into a vein. The military has used them to show how a bullet damages bone and tissue in combat and to teach doctors how to treat battle wounds. .

Although the material is designed for doctors, interest from the public has exceeded all expectations. CD-Roms based on the project, priced at pounds 18 to pounds 24, have become top sellers. A man who invested about pounds 6,000 in developing a CD-Rom said he earned his money back in 15 minutes.

Dr Michael Ackerman, the head of the project, said: "We understand the cheaper ones are selling like crazy. People want to know what's inside."

The project team has designed a new program calledVisible Human Explorer to allow the public to view the cadavers. Software companies have already used the data to develop 3-D versions which allow users to rotate objects and navigate around them. One company, Visible Productions of Fort Collins, said it used the simulation program to fly through arteries and take apart and reconstruct body parts.

Public health specialists say that the visible humans will provide a new way of teaching the public about health risks. A patient would be able to select how many cigarettes they smoke a day over how many years and the program would illustrate the changes in the lungs. It could also show what a tumour looks like as it forms.

Interest in the UK in the project has been muted. The Royal College of Surgeons said it offered scope to medical students learning anatomy but was of limited use in the training of surgeons.