3D Anatomical Human – A network of European researchers helps improve medical imaging
In French Guiana, as the distance between the expanding human habitat and the surrounding ecosystem is reduced, this has the potential to expose the population to new viruses and bacteria. European scientists are exploring how to improve research infrastructure and capacity to tackle the emerging threat of infectious disease in French Guiana and boost public health in the region.
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The limitation of these techniques is that the patient must be stationary. Imaging the muscles, bones and joints of a moving person is impossible even with state-of-the-art technology. Currently, preventing musculoskeletal problems such as osteoporosis, joint injuries and muscle sprains relies as much on old-fashioned medical skills, like observation and touch, as it does on imaging.
But a network of European researchers has made impressive strides toward changing that, with the 3D Anatomical Human project (3DAH), a Marie Curie Action (MCA) of the European Commission. The aim of the project, which ran from 2006 to 2010, was to create personalised, moveable computer models of the muscles, bones, ligaments and tendons of the human body. Using motion capture and MRI imaging, the researchers combined actual patterns of movement with the specific anatomy of each patient.
The multidisciplinary project brought together researchers from six European countries – Italy, Denmark, UK, Switzerland, Belgium and France – in a variety of specialties – from anatomy and medical imaging, through biomechanics, to computer animation. The structure of the Marie Curie programme allowed the crucial mobility for cross-pollination between disciplines, says project coordinator Dr Nadia Magnenat-Thalmann of the University of Geneva.
"Research fellows have to spend two months a year in another partner's lab, so at the end of the project we really had a team of people working together," she says. "What's nice as a research fellow is that you're not alone with your professor – you're in an extended multi-country team with a lot of know-how."
The 3DAH project not only broke new scientific ground, garnering substantial international media coverage along the way, but it also had considerable impact in preparing research fellows for their subsequent careers.
"Doing a PhD in one place with one professor, it's more difficult to find a job," Dr Magnenat-Thalmann says. "These Marie Curie students have been in many places and have built up not only knowledge but a network, so they know better what is going on at the leading edge of the field."
This wealth of experience, plus many opportunities to publish, made it easier for PhD students to successfully apply for professorships after their involvement in this Marie Curie Action. One 3DAH research fellow, Jerome Schmid, immediately became a professor of applied medicine in Geneva, while research fellow Gwenael Guillard took a job at leading medical imaging company Imorphics in England and was quickly promoted to senior researcher.
Teams in the UK and France are continuing the 3DAH work, while the Centre for Sensory-Motor Interaction in Denmark is integrating the open-source components of the research into commercial software. Dr Magnenat-Thalmann's group is building on the results in their current Marie Curie Action, "MultiScaleHuman", which aims to add cellular and molecular details to the 3D anatomical models.
Ultimately, the researchers want to create a clinical tool that doctors could use to quickly visualise movement patterns and counsel the patient to prevent injury. With musculoskeletal conditions – including chronic pain, arthritis and bone fracture – being the leading cause of disability in the European Union (EU), that goal is all the more pressing.