CONTACT: JENNIFER BROWN
Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 335-9917; fax(319) 384-4638
Release: March 2, 2001
Virtual Microscope aids study for UI medical students
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Medical students at the University
of Iowa College of Medicine have a new learning tool at their fingertips:
a "virtual microscope" that lets students study magnified images of human
tissues and cells with the click of a mouse.
Traditionally, students use a microscope to examine
normal and diseased tissues and cells, which are preserved on glass slides
and viewed at various levels of magnification. The Virtual Microscope Laboratory
is a UI project that makes use of a newly emerging technology to capture the
information contained on glass slides, digitize that information and deliver
it over the Web.
"The slides would ordinarily be viewed using a microscope
but in this case they can now be viewed using a computer," said Fred R. Dick,
M.D., UI professor of pathology, and principal investigator on the Virtual
Microscope project. "It is possible to zoom in and move around to different
fields on the digitized slide, all in real time. It is just like using a real
microscope, but the slides are of the best quality and are always in focus."
The technology used to create the virtual slides has
recently been developed by MicroBrightField, Inc. of Colchester, Vt. To make
a digital image, up to 1,200 contiguous microscopic pictures of a slide are
captured. These individual fields are tiled together into one seamless image
that contains a gigabyte of information. A second technology, FlashPix, developed
by Kodak, compresses the gigabyte file down to 100 megabytes, which can be
placed on a file server. UI students can access the Virtual Microscope from
any campus computer or home computer that has a cable modem.
With support from the UI College of Medicine Educational
Development Fund and a UI student Computing Fee Project Award, Dick and his
UI collaborators in the Departments of Pathology and Anatomy and Cell Biology
tested the usefulness of the Virtual Microscope as a teaching device. They
digitized slides from the spring 2000 histology (the study of human tissues)
course for UI medical students. The students had access to both the Virtual
Microscope and real microscopes with glass slides. At the end of the course,
the students completed an evaluation of the Virtual Microscope.
For the most part, the two systems were comparable
in the eyes of the students who used them, but in two areas the Virtual Microscope
came out ahead. The students found that campus computers, available 24 hours
a day, 7 days a week, made the Virtual Microscope more accessible than the
real microscopes, which were in a lab with set daytime hours. Also, the students
found the Virtual Microscope to be a more efficient use of their time. The
results of these evaluations were published in the February issue of the journal
Anatomical Record-The New Anatomist.
"The students loved this technology," Dick said. "The
accessibility of the Virtual Microscope was especially appealing. They say
that they can use it anywhere, anytime."
In addition to the digitized slides of tissue sections,
the units also contain images of the gross anatomy of the tissue that indicate
where the tissue sections come from within the organ.
"Everything is right there," Dick said. "The students
don't have to check out a box of slides, they just sit down and click and
there it is."
Peter Densen, M.D., UI associate dean for student
affairs and curriculum and professor of internal medicine, is also an enthusiastic
proponent of the Virtual Microscope.
"This is an example of the innovative educational
programs faculty at the UI College of Medicine have been developing," Densen
said. "The Virtual Microscope harnesses technologic advances to improve delivery
and integration of educational material for our students."
"Through this kind of effort, the College has emerged
as a leader not only in the development and implementation of this type of
program but also in their use for formative and summative assessment of student
knowledge, skills and attitudes," Densen added. "Our students benefit from
being on the forefront of these applications."
Following the success of the pilot program, Dick and
his colleagues digitized all slides from UI histology and pathology courses
and introduced the Virtual Microscope into both courses this year.
In a second, related project, funded by a grant from
the National Library of Medicine, Dick is developing a public-domain set of
virtual teaching slides. The long-term goal is to produce a comprehensive
set of high-quality virtual slides showing every adult human organ and tissue.
Dick hopes that this electronic slide box will be used by histology and pathology
course directors around the country to augment or replace microscopes and
Many of the slides currently used to teach students
are commercially purchased and therefore cannot be used in a public database,
so Dick has been collaborating with colleagues at other medical schools to
obtain a full set of high-quality slides to be digitized.
"With the Virtual Microscope you can take the very
best slide anyone has and make it available for everyone to see," Dick said.
Dick sees several other areas of potential for the
Virtual Microscope. In particular, he suggests that the Virtual Microscope
could be used by pathologists and cytopathology screeners (people who read
Pap smear tests) for continuing medical education (CME) and to standardize
"Certifying exams and continuing medical education
are areas where I think great things will happen in the next five years,"
Dick said. "This technology allows more realistic and uniform testing."
Michael B. Cohen, M.D., UI professor and head of pathology
agrees with Dick's assessment that this technology could have much wider applications.
"As well as CME, this technology could enhance online
textbooks and be used to establish morphologic databases available to investigators
worldwide," Cohen said.
Dick also hopes that high schools students studying
biology eventually will use the Virtual Microscope. However, although local
high schools are well equipped with computers, their processing speed and
bandwidth are currently too small to transfer the large amounts of data for
the virtual slides fast enough.
University of Iowa Health Care describes the partnership
between the UI College of Medicine and the UI Hospitals and Clinics and the
patient care, medical education and research programs and services they provide.