/ Modified jun 22, 2010 3:15 p.m.

Bodies... The Exhibit: Anatomy Lab for the Masses

Plastination process used for Bodies exhibit is employed by anatomy lab at University of Arizona.

Plastination exhibit and process (VIDEO: azpm)

By now you’ve likely heard about BODIES…The Exhibition. The exhibit recently made its debut in downtown Tucson and it’s been a popular attraction ever since, bringing in hundreds of visitors on a daily basis. It presents an intimate and informative view into the human body. The presentation is arranged so that visitors begin at the skeletal system, and move through various aspects of the human body such as muscular, nervous, digestive, respiratory and reproductive.

Bodies… The Exhibition uses real human bodies that have been preserved permanently by a process called "polymer preservation." The process is also known as plastination, and Gunther Von Hagens originally patented it in the 1980’s.

Here at the University of Arizona, plastination is also used to help fulfill the educational mission of the college of medicine. Joshua Lopez is the director of the Anatomical Donor Program at the University of Arizona, or will-donor program as it’s more commonly known. He also coordinates all activities within the U of A’s plastination laboratory. Lopez says that Plastination, the process of preserving human tissue, has become an important tool in the quest to provide medical students valuable experience and training. He says that the plastination process is essentially the replacement of water and fatty material in the cells of the body, first by acetone, and then by a silicone polymer that preserves the specimen.

“The number one benefit of plastination is to be able to touch and handle the specimen outside of a wet-lab,” he says. It’s quite a different experience for the students to be able to manipulate the specimens without having to worry about the toxic formaldehyde, and protective equipment required when working with traditionally preserved tissue.

Lopez also points out that each body offers students a unique example of anatomical features, and a much more vivid experience than could ever be gleaned from a textbook. “The nice thing about the anatomy lab is that students get to see a broad perspective.” Each body is unique and Lopez’s objective, as the person in charge of the Plastination Lab, is to maximize the educational potential of each specimen.

He says that he understands that some people might find his work unsettling but he says that it’s invaluable in fulfilling the mission of the College of Medicine. The plastination lab at the University of Arizona provides valuable tools for medical students eager to gain an understanding of the intricacies of human anatomy. And Lopez says that there is nothing that could substitute for the hands-on experience of working with the donated bodies.

“In the medical community there has been talk of going to a virtual model,” he says. He points out that he would always feel more comfortable knowing that his doctors have had an opportunity to work closely with a real specimen of the human body.

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