Updated 26 September 2014

Body parts up for adoption

"Adopting" a poisoned liver or an amputated leg may seem macabre, but it's an innovative way to fund essential medical education.

The University of Cape Town's Pathology Learning Centre has come up with an offbeat way to raise funds: members of the public are invited to "adopt" one of its 4500 specimens, which comprise mainly diseased body parts acquired over the years from operations and autopsies performed at Groote Schuur Hospital.

These include such curiosities as cirrhotic livers, amputated limbs, lungs scarred with TB and asbestosis, intestinal parasites and hairballs (see below).

The adoption campaign, says the Centre's curator, Dr Jane Yeats, was inspired by popular programmes run by zoos, where benefactors pay a donation towards the upkeep of a favourite leopard cub, say, or a penguin, and usually have their generosity acknowledged by a plaque on the animal's enclosure.

Body parts make rather less cuddly potential adoptees than zoo animals, but deserve support nonetheless. These specimens play an important role in medical student training, as well as educating the public about major diseases.

Read: Body worlds: curious corpses

A fresh take on death and disease

Innovation is typical of the Pathology Centre, which started life as the Pathology Museum, previously a rather gloomy appendage to Groote Schuur Hospital's mortuary. It is now a bright, thoughtfully curated space that, together with its collection of specimens, houses artists' interpretations of human anatomy and disease.

The upbeat atmosphere is never frivolous however, and, as the Centre's complementary digital collection quietly urges visitors:

"Please be respectful of the specimens and their images. Although anonymous now, they originate from real patients whose diseases were often distressing, painful and fatal."

Art and science complement each other in the Pathology Learning Centre

The adoption campaign will bring in funds for the ongoing restoration of further rooms in the museum, and upkeep of extant and new specimens.

Adoptees will have an acknowledgement of their sponsor on the bottle (if desired), says Dr Yeats. A donation of R250 covers an adoption for five years; lifetime adoptions are R1000.

“We'll also hold a special open day for sponsors, the Pathology Learning Centre generally being open only to UCT staff and students. We do organise school visits to the museum however, and hope to have more of these in future." she says.

"People who'd likely be interested in adopting are those in the medical field, or perhaps someone with personal experience of a condition shown by a specimen," says Dr Yeats.

Anyone living in a human body should find the project compelling though; many of the specimens have intriguing back stories.

Siblings slain by bread

One of the collection's flagship specimens, for example, is the fatally damaged liver from a victim of "bread poisoning".

In the 1930s, cases of bread poisoning occurred in poor communities in the Cape when flour became contaminated with Senecio (ragwort), a toxic weed that grows in wheat fields.

Senecio poisoning liver Credit Digital PathologyThe liver belonged to a 10-year-old girl who died, along with her two brothers, some weeks after eating bread from Senecio-laced flour. She had jaundice and severe abdominal pain and swelling. The liver (shown on the left) has an abnormal mottled appearance.

Nowadays there's still a risk this kind of poisoning may occur, as plants of the Senecio family are used in traditional medicine and sometimes even eaten as "spinach".

The poisoned liver is being adopted by Dr Simon Lewin, Senior Researcher at the Norwegian Knowledge Centre for the Health Services and South Africa's Medical Research Council, who was a medical student at UCT.

He says: "I've always found the pathology museum fascinating, so much so that I took my partner there on a date!

"This specimen particularly attracted my attention, because the story behind it is so unexpected and poignant. The fact that the three siblings all succumbed to Senecio poisoning at the same time made me reflect on the unpredictability of daily life."

A stomach-full of hair

Hairball cropped credit Digital Pathology Museum

One of the Centre's more bizarre specimens is a trichobezoar (shown above), or very large hairball. It was removed from the stomach of a six-year-old girl with trichotillomania (obsessive hair pulling), and, in this case, also hair eating (trichophagia). When the little girl's own hair was cut short she started eating other children's hair.

The indigestible mass is mainly composed of human hair but also contains fabric, string and thread. It has taken on the shape of the stomach and upper intestine. Trichobezoars may need to be surgically removed, as they can obstruct the digestive tract and cause ulcers and bleeding.

Read: Pica: when people eat earth and other indigestibles

Worms on the brain

Brain with tapeworm cysts Credit Digital Patholo
Tapeworm (L) and tapeworm cysts in the brain (R).

Part of a tapeworm removed from the bowel of a 19-year-old man, who died of complications of neurocysticercosis, a tapeworm cyst in the brain.

This occurs when the adult tapeworm lays eggs in the gut that are carried in the bloodstream to other parts of the body. The specimen shows numerous small pits formed by the cysts. Neurocysticercosis is an important cause of epilepsy in South Africa.

The official launch of the adoption campaign will take place later this year; meanwhile please direct inquiries to the curator:

Read more:
Tapeworm-linked seizures on the rise

What happens when you die?
Digital Pathology Teaching Collection website

Picture credits unless otherwise stated: Digital Pathology Collection, University of Cape Town

Olivia Rose-Innes is Health24’s EnviroHealth Editor. Read more of her columns and articles or post a question to her expert forum.


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