Monday, 2 February 2015

Digitising Disease: The Creation of 3D Models of Human Remains

As Neal has previously mentioned in his January 18th, 2015 blog post titled “The Ever Murkier World of Replicating Heritage”, the capacity to scan and 3D print archaeological artifacts is both a fascinating and foreboding idea. 3D printing has the potential to open the lines of communication within and outside of academia by providing access to archaeological information throughout the global community of students, educators, researchers and members of the public. Interested to the extent of which the discipline of palaeopathology has been using this emerging technology, I investigated several digital projects that have been put in motion throughout the world with the aim of creating accessible and comprehensive palaeopathological data sets that are available online.
Perhaps the most prolific of the projects is Digitised Diseases; an open access online resource which features human bones that have been digitized using a 3D laser scanner, CT and radiography. The project uses archaeological and historical medical collections to demonstrate a wide range of pathologies that affect the human skeleton. Using photo-realistic digital representations of 3D bones, this resource features hundreds of specimens that can be viewed, downloaded and manipulated on the user’s computer, tablet or smartphone. The project originated in 2011 through collaboration between the University of Bradford, the Museum of London Archaeology and the Royal College of Surgeons of England and has been supported by the Jisc Content Programme until 2013.
Between the three major partners, there was an extensive osteological sample to work with. The University of Bradford houses nearly 4000 sets of archaeological remains that span over several temporal and spatial periods in the UK. In addition, the two project partners in London both have notable collections as The Royal College of Surgeons of England (RCS) houses the Wellcome Museum of Anatomy & Pathology and the Hunterian Collection at Lincolns Inn Fields. The Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) in Shoreditch holds recently excavated assemblages mostly from London and has historic ties to the Centre for Human Bioarchaeology at the Museum of London which acts as a repository for archived human remains assemblages recorded using the shared Wellcome Osteological Research Database (WORD).

From the collective and extensive reference samples available, specimens were selected for the online database based off of any visible or previously known pathology present in the skeleton. From there, the specimen was classified into a hierarchical structure of distinct disease categories- this was done for both user accessibility and project management. The disease classification system used for Digitsed Diseases is available online here. The selected bones were then scanned using a Faro Quantum laserarm scanner and uploaded into the online database where the 3D model and accompanying 3D printing mesh are made available for users to download. With over 1600 3D pathological models with accompanying CT data, radiographs, videos and clinical synopses, Digitised Diseases represents one of the first systematic and born digital projects in the palaeopathology.
This database creates both a wealth of information and complications made available through 3D scanning technologies. Perhaps one of the most prominent issues with the creation of such a resource is the public display and accessibility to thousands of facsimiles that were created using real human remains. Although the project website does provide a disclaimer imploring that the models only be used in educational and scientific settings, there is no policing organization that can continually monitor the use of each of the 3D downloads throughout the world. Thus, the models can be downloaded and used in a variety of settings including art installations. The misuse or abuse of the models is a major concern for the discipline of palaeopathology that strives for the respectful treatment of human remains.  In addition, the definitive diagnosis of the specimens made on the website does not reflect the reality of diagnosing disease in human remains. During an informal discussion regarding this database with a palaeopathologist in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Western Ontario, I was informed that researchers are aware that this resource exists but are critical of several of the diagnoses provided (disease patterns are often influenced by a concomitant of factors and can thus present in individualistic manifestation). It was mentioned that during a conference presentation the previous year, 7 out of the 27 pathologies that were discussed using this database has been misdiagnosed. This proves problematic not only for the reliability of the website, but for the accuracy of the information that researchers and students alike are generating based off of specimen data.

Overall, I was impressed with the extensive collection and diversity of pathologies that are available through Digitising Disease. I firmly believe that 3D technologies have the capability of transforming how knowledge is transmitted and disseminated throughout academia and to the general public (a concept which I hope to explore with the upcoming digital project). Even though this is an emerging form of data and there are still several issues that need to be worked out, 3D models have the ability to transform the discipline of palaeopathology from a narrow stream of anthropology into an integrative and interdisciplinary field that combines multiple lines of evidence to better predict future disease patterns.

1 comment:

i-ing the past said...

Interesting discussion, Isabella. I had not known about the mus-diagnoses, and it underscores a bit of a founder effect to the first digital online reference databases... any problems inherent in them can be magnified as people assume the accuracy of data and information in these sources. A much bigger issue for digital reference collections, I think!