Stanford bids welcome to the NASA-sponsored national biocomputation centre

Stanford, 31 October 97 The use of virtual reality in medicine is a major topic for both American and European researchers. At the Stanford University School of Medicine, Professor Stephen Schendel already started a project two years ago, in collaboration with Muriel Ross, a NASA neuroscientist. Together, they developed a virtual-surgery workbench enabling surgeons to visualise a complex surgery in a 3-D environment. This initiative shows a remarkable analogy to the VRASP-technology, the Virtual Reality Assisted Surgery Program, presently developed by the Euromed metacentres. NASA officials were so enthusiastic about the results that they didn't hesitate to launch the idea of a national biocomputation centre in which researchers will apply complex computing skills to the practice of medicine.

Schendel is a specialist in craniofacial surgery. His virtual-surgery workbench is equipped with special gloves, computer tracking wands and software to manipulate a 3-D image of a patient. Especially for students, the workbench constitutes a ideal training tool. NASA considered the device as an important first step to create a national biocomputation centre that initially will focus on medical virtual reality but later will expand its activities to various other biological projects involving computer technology. Stanford and NASA both are convinced of the necessity of a mutual relationship between computer science and medicine.

NASA has offered a $500.000 donation per year to provide growing chances for the newly founded enterprise over the next five years. The centre started off on September 19th 1997 marking the beginning of formal ties between NASA and Stanford to collaborate on the development of biomedical three-dimensional imaging technologies. However, the search for other partners already has begun in academic as well as private industry circles. Indeed, Schendel and Ross cherish the desire to turn the centre into an accessible and creative laboratory of ideas to "push" the state of the art.

According to the NASA viewpoint expressed by Henry McDonald, director of the NASA Ames Research Centre, the biocomputation centre is forming the spearhead in the medical care for astronauts who may be injured in space. Better diagnosis and more effective solution to the medical emergency are needs that should be met by the Schendel/Ross-initiative. It goes without saying that such specialised health care directly confers a benefit on the civilian population, like various other space implementations have done and still do. McDonald especially is thinking of particular improvements in the diagnostic use of radiographic and other types of images.

Schendel is proud to announce the interest from his colleagues in several departments in the School of Medicine as well as in the School of Engineering and the Department of Computer Science. As we have described in other articles in this issue, neurosurgeons who operate on the brain, are highly committed to the virtual reality techniques which seem to be guarantying such promising results in micro-surgery. Of course, we should not forget to mention the radiologists who are keen on perfecting their capability of displaying data in 3-D.

For all these research people in the field, Muriel Ross believes that the national biocomputation centre at Stanford maybe means but a small step in their present work but could become a giant step for future medical practice and the teaching of science and medicine.

Leslie Versweyveld