FRANKENSTEIN 200: Bequeathals create ‘life,’ enable research and learning

A tale born out of a ghost-story competition between Mary Shelley, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and English poet Lord Byron, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus has exceeded 300 editions and inspired more than 90 films – in addition to hundreds of academic texts and comic books, even – over the past two centuries. The book was first published anonymously in January 1818 and continues to be cited today in conversations concerning scientific progress, ethics and sometimes, the vanity of humankind.

In this issue, Western News celebrates the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein with insights from faculty across disciplines.

*    *    *

Two centuries ago, Mary Shelley was on a trip to Switzerland where she conceived and constructed the idea of Frankenstein. Through countless theatrical and silver-screen adaptations, the novel still conjures ideas of creating a new human from various pieces of humans.

As a member of the Clinical Anatomy group within the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, I can safely say we don’t do that. At least not physically.

Yes, the medical field has come a long, long way to enhance transplantation from entire organs down to stem cells. We are gaining better understanding of rejection and cellular-level tissue repairs as researchers continue to make magnificent and microscopic strides in our understanding of how skin, bone and tendon re-form themselves. Although elusive only a few decades ago, the concept of mending an injured spinal cord seems ever more attainable as modern medicine and therapies catch up to our afflictions.

In my Anatomy classes, I’m always surprised to learn how many of us are walking around with donor or autologous tissues that have aided repair of our injuries. Just this week, an eccentric friend was showing off his new thumb on social media; it was in fact one of his toes moved to that opposable digit on his hand. (Coincidentally, it was in Switzerland near the end of the 19th Century when the first toe-to-hand transfer was performed.)

In my lab, the Corps for Research of Instructional and Perceptual Technologies (CRIPT), we are electronically mixing body parts. Let me explain: We bring together elements of human anatomy through imaging and software.

Using an MRI scan of an anonymized brain, a CT scan of the chest, heart and lungs of a cadaveric donor, the perineum of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Visible Human Female and legs generated from the Visible Korean, we do indeed make a digital Frankenstein that we have amiably termed ‘Frankendaver.’ The images are data which comes from all over the world and now lurks on our lab’s server. When the lab commenced these studies and sought data, we were surprised at the level of detail and the techniques used to gather it. In addition to the non-invasive imaging of CT and MR, The NIH’s ‘visible human’ is perhaps as close as we get to lab methodologies that Dr. Frankenstein might appreciate. For example, the Visible Human used a criminal condemned to death who gave informed consent to allow his remains to be sectioned transversely and serially photographed for research. With appropriate permissions, labs from around the world can download the gigs of anatomical data.

A few years later came the visible human female with higher resolution scans and thinner slices to avail more detail. Other labs are following those early examples with ever better techniques. Today, the visible Chinese and Korean bodies are examples of how technology and imaging can mix to help form new ‘human’ forms to aid educators and researchers.

The digital models do indeed lie in wait for students, but not as something voyeuristically horrific; rather, these digital learning objects complement, surprise and inspire many to study medicine, dentistry and allied health sciences such as kinesiology, physiotherapy and occupational therapy. Some educators use the digital models for teaching, while others use Frankendaver models for important research into teaching and learning.

Some students and their mentors in our department employ these electronic approaches for both microscopic anatomy and pre-surgical simulation. They create novel environments morphing scales in virtual reality environments to aid understanding of complex physiological mechanisms, spatial relationships and their anatomical underpinnings.

Instead of morphing into new humans, however, they morph reality in hopes of coaxing faster, easier and more enduring learning experiences. This is part of what makes Western a world-class institution. It’s not easy work and hundreds of hours are spent poring over apparent minutiae, much like Dr. Frankenstein pored over his ‘invention.’

As something more than an aside, talk of modern Frankenstein could not be complete without reference to the Elon Musk of business-meets-anatomy: the controversial Gunther von Hagens. Von Hagens is an anatomist who has developed a methodology for preserving large anatomical specimens through his patented plastination process.

Anatomy plastination represents his science side. The other side of von Hagens, voyeuristic and spectacular, is the creation of travelling road shows called Body Worlds, which some might describe as a macabre Cirque du Soleil. A propos to this conversation is his self-described ability to “unite subtle anatomy and modern polymer chemistry” that enables him to preserve and pose cadavers in natural positions of life, love, sport and beyond.

Can you hear the echoes, “It’s alive, it’s alive!”

So, no, in our labs, we do not assemble Frankenstein-esque cadavers.

Instead, we ‘create’ a new generation of caring humans: We bring anatomy to life through great teachers, staff and graduate student teaching assistants who have a passion for understanding the framework of what we know to be human.

While anatomy laboratories cannot be public places, the people who work and study there speak with gratitude and awe about their experiences, challenges and successes.

Significantly, we could not undertake this challenge without the gifts of body bequeathal. These donations are gratefully received as a final contribution to society and are an important component of many students’ formation into health professionals who save human lives. Read more about Western’s Body Bequeathal Program.

Each year, we hold a respectful memorial service that is open to all. I would urge you to attend as we honour the family members and friends of those who have chosen to bequeath their bodies to our program. Students from the previous year share their experiences of personal growth and humble gratitude and describe how the family’s loved one became a vital learning partner ­– a person, a human, who shared life with students seeking to improve the lives of others. In our labs, it is knowledge that has come to life, and it lives on in the novel neuronal synapses of our graduates.

Tim Wilson is a professor of Anatomy and Cell Biology within the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.

*   *   *

Read more from the Western News celebration of the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein with insights from faculty across disciplines.

Frankenstein cannot help but remain a text for our time by Wendy Pearson

Bequeathals create ‘life,’ enable research and learning by Tim Wilson

Mary Shelley warned me there’d be days like this by Tim Blackmore

Embracing the loneliness of monsters by Christopher Keep

Of Frankenstein and the White House by Steven Bruhm