POLYMER  EMBALMING:
                        A  NEW  ANATOMICAL  TECHNIQUE


               

                         Dmitriy Starchik
                         Scientific chief the International Morphological Centre
                         Doctor of medicine


 

 

    Since beginning, Human Anatomy has been a science that is learned very slowly, forgotten very quickly, and smells very bad. The last point is connected with both rot and the use of preservatives, (chemical substances capable of preserving biological tissues, protecting them from decay). This was the only method of embalming human and animal bodies…until now.

Egyptian mummyThe history of embalming started with the first human societies. Through time, Anatomists developed techniques to stop decay and preserve the organs and tissues with their original appearance. The "art" of embalming was sacred to the sons inheriting the technologies from their fathers. However, all of our existing methods require the use of harmful chemicals. There are some written documents suggesting that the health of the Egyptians were impacted from their embalming techniques. In St. Petersburg Hermitage, on papyrus paper, there is a description of someone suffering with burns caused by hot vinegar and poisoned by the vapor of boiling cypress resin during a ritual embalming process.

The specimens in a formalinWith the evolution of medicine in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries preservatives were used for preparation of anatomical specimens to teach human anatomy. Phenol (carbolic acid), ethyl alcohol, water saline and acid solutions, glycerin and formalin form an incomplete list of preservatives used by anatomists for the last centuries. During the past three or four centuries, all anatomical activities in the anatomical theatres have lead to the poisoning of people (teachers, students, researchers, and other personnel) by using harmful chemicals (either tissue preservatives and other embalming process agents, or rot toxins). Besides this disadvantage, preservative-treated teaching anatomical specimens can stay in the open air for short and soon become mummified, get musty and outwear. And one has to prepare more and more specimens.

Attempts to change traditional preservation methods radically were made at the beginning of the twentieth century. Experiments carries out by Deegener and Berndt in 1914 and Hochstelter and Schneidel in 1924 may be considered the prototypes of the modern polymeric embalming. For anatomic embalming these researchers used paraffin which substituted water and lipids in organs and tissues. Their specimens were hard enough but sensitive to heat and had low durability.

Professor von HagensIn the middle of the twentieth century the rapid development of high-molecular chemistry commenced and gave rise to the wide variety of polymers with unique qualities. Anatomists have paid attention to them long ago and started to use polymers for tree-type copies by means of vessel and hollow structures injections. They have also experimented with coating the surface of organs with different polymers with the aim of diminishing mummification of anatomical specimens and increasing the period of their use. In the late seventies Hunter Von Hagens, the anatomist from the Heidelberg University, developed and patented an innovating technology of saturating slides and organs with transparent polymeric compositions. This method was called plastination and has been widely spread since then. Professor Von Hagens and his associates have later developed the process by using new polymers and equipment. The process itself and polymeric compositions are patented but their use in research and education is being welcomed and encouraged. Today there are more than 100 laboratories, most of which use the Von Hagens' technique. Plastination has also become widely known because of the "Bodyworlds" exhibitions, organized by Hagens.

Whole body plastinatSince 1993 the IMC has been constantly searching for new methods of preserving anatomical and biological objects by means of domestic polymers. The first specimens embalmed with silicone were manufactured in 1997. For the last years we have tried, developed and patented several original technological processes and polymer compositions. As many characteristics of these techniques differ from those prevailing in other countries, this new morphological trend is referred to as polymer embalming.

Further development of the polymeric embalming method in the IMC allowed to prepare thin slides of organs and parts of the body which are successfully used in research and teaching.

Polymer impregnated specimens have eight general advantages in comparison with old "wet" specimens:

  • They are non-toxic
  • They do not have any odor
  • They retain the natural shape and color of organs
  • They are extremely demonstrative and can be studied both visually and manually (touching)
  • They have a long "shelf life"
  • They do not require any hermetic or special containers
  • They have superior mechanical properties and wear-resistance
  • They are very economical for school budgets

Due to these advantages, our specimens are widely used for practical trainings, lectures and examinations. Polymer embalmed specimens can also help during speeches, exhibitions and any other activities involving macro-morphological studies of biological structures.

With some recent developments of the method and equipment we managed to spread polymeric embalming among other higher educational institutions in Russia and neighboring countries. We hope that in the near future many morphologists start using the methods developed in the IMC and plastinated anatomical specimens become usual at every anatomy department.