World-renowned forensic anthropologist Dr Temperance ‘Bones’ Brenner looks intently at a skeleton found in a park on the outskirts of Washington. “The victim is a 25-year-old female who suffered severe trauma to the head. She was killed six months ago,” she says decisively. The race is then on to find the type of object used, as well as to track down the suspect. This is a typical scene out of Bones, a riveting American forensic science TV series, set at the Medico-Legal Lab of the Jeffersonian Institute, a fictionalised version of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC.
Closer to home, the University of Pretoria’s own ‘Bones’, Professor Ericka Noelle L’Abbe, a forensic anthropologist and Director of UP’s Forensic Anthropology Research Centre in the Faculty of Health Sciences, is working with the Department of Library Services’ MakerSpace Centre to print replicas of human bones in 3D.
UP won the first ever Capacity Building Higher Education Erasmus+ grant for a project titled Bakeng se Afrika, which focuses on building a digital repository of human skeletal remains for research and education. It is also the principal co-ordinator of a consortium of European and South African universities in this project.
Professor Ericka Noelle L’Abbe with human bones.
For Prof L'Abbe, the project “forms an excellent basis for the teaching of tomorrow, where a scan can be done today of a human bone, and we can have a render done almost the next day for education, preparation, or testing of causes for a specific case. 3D printing allows students to see bone trauma. This is important for those who want to interpret fractures from identified remains.”
Sean Kruger, Coordinator of MakerSpace’s Digital Scholarship Services, recently printed a human skull to show ballistic injuries to students. They were able to hold it and see the actual injuries. “The full render took approximately 56 hours to print. We printed scaled versions first to test the viability. This is what makes 3D printing so beneficial, as scaled versions can quickly be rendered for testing purposes,” he explained.
According to Prof L'Abbe, the aim was to allow students hands-on experience with such a case without the risk of damaging the original piece. “In so doing, we aim to enhance the learning experience through 3D printed models to improve understanding of bone diagnosis due to certain situations such as gunshots in anatomically complex sites.” It is easier to teach students using 3D-printed bones instead of real human bones as some students, due to socio-cultural issues, might not want to touch human bones. “This is less stressful on a student and opens new up ways of making science about our bodies more accessible,” she explained.
Traditional photography or sketches of bones that were damaged do not adequately capture the essence of complex situations. By using 3D printed models, students have access to accurate representations of the original case, Prof L'Abbe said.
Sean Kruger with a 3D print of a human skull.
In the future, she hopes to be involved with the 3D printing of skeleton parts, depending on funding. This material could be distributed to first-year human osteology (the science that deals with human skeleton recovery and interpretation) students in medicine, or basic medical sciences. “Up until 15 years ago, medical students were allowed to take home a ‘bag of bones’ from the student bone collection. To this day, we receive calls from grandchildren of doctors who found an anatomical skeleton in their attic.”
She explained that distributing real human remains to students is no longer considered ethical behaviour for the treatment of these bones. “But students learn best from skeletal material. Last year, in a survey of our first-year students, they indicated they wanted to learn using real human bones. While we can supply real human remains in an on-campus laboratory environment, 3D prints of human bones can go a long way in helping the student learn outside the classroom.”
It is illegal to travel overseas with a bag of crania with gunshot wounds for research purposes. However, the benefit of 3D printing is that it can be replicated anywhere in the world, and distributed to match cases or obtain external opinions anywhere. She is adamant that “all aspects of medicine will benefit from 3D printed skeletons, as well as anyone who needs to learn human osteology, and fragmentary osteology.”