Dead men tell no tales, the saying goes.
But a new database at UNM will allow researchers and others to gather a wealth of information from deceased men, women, and children. Construction of the New Mexico Decedent Image Database is complete and the website went live this week. The website offers high-resolution full-body CT scans along with associated demographic, lifestyle, and health data at no charge to users who study forensic pathology, health issues, and human evolution.
Dr. Heather Edgar, forensic anthropologist at the UNM Office of Medical Investigator (OMI) and associate professor of anthropology, spearheaded the project to convert a dataset of whole body decedent CT scans into a searchable database available to researchers.
From 2010 to 2017, the OMI created over 15,240 whole body CT scans. Each scan contains about 10,000 images of a single body, showing everything from soft tissues, like skin and muscles, to bones. Along with each body scan comes a wealth of data about the person, including circumstances of death, health history like the number of births and tobacco use, and demographic data such as age, weight, marital status, and ethnicity.
“Tons of information, up to 69 pieces of data, from cause and manner of death, where they were born, occupation, and even hobbies,” Edgar said, adding that OMI staff gathered more in-depth information if family members were willing to disclose it. However, names and exact birth and death dates are deleted from the scans to make them untraceable and preserve privacy and anonymity.
These data are as desirable to researchers as the scans themselves.
All these data can give a fuller picture of a person’s life and death, Edgar said. For example, she said, in one case she noticed that the scan showed a man with a sedentary desk job had a strong, robust build. The in-depth information showed that he was a martial arts expert.
About half the deaths were from natural causes, followed by vehicle accidents, homicides and suicides, and undetermined causes.
“Anything you can imagine,” Edgar said.
Most of the people who want access are researchers and some educators in a wide variety of fields such as forensic pathology, radiology, evolution and anthropology, oncologists, and public health.
“I was really excited because prior to this project, we had a lot of requests for data on a case by case, ad hoc basis,” said Natalie Adolphi, director of the UNM Center for Forensic Imaging. “A little was OK but the demand had gotten really high. Medical investigators have a wealth of data in their autopsy reports but little was available to researchers. We were in the situation of having this large quantity of data but there was no curated, standardized, searchable database of that information until this project.”
The cost of the project has been approximately $5 million, Adolphi said. The database itself was funded by a $702,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice. Previous grants and legislative funding paid for the CT scan room, equipment, and personnel.
Edgar gave some examples of how the database could be used:
Forensic anthropologists estimate the age, sex, race/ethnicity, and height of unknown individuals. In New Mexico, unidentified skeletons are sometimes found out in the desert. Soft tissue such as discs between the vertebrae decomposes and makes it hard to calculate how tall a person was. Now, these CT scans can be used to estimate how much difference there is between the height of a person and the measurements of their skeleton, and to make that estimate specific to the sex and age of the individual. This information can help narrow the pool that should be considered when attempting to identify a missing person.
The research could also be used to make safer vehicles.
“The best way to understand danger is to look at patterns of injuries of people who die, for example, in car accidents. If you look at the pattern of injuries in, say, children under 100 pounds of weight, you might see hidden dangers that haven’t been noticed yet. Cars are pretty safe, but we can always do better,” Edgar explained.
The database is pretty much complete but the OMI might add more scans in certain cases to expand the data, such as for bubonic plague deaths, which happen occasionally in New Mexico but are almost unknown in other parts of the world, or pediatric deaths, because the percentage of child deaths is relatively small.
Developing and maintaining the database has taken the efforts of not just OMI but other UNM departments.
The database contains more than 150 million images and accompanying data that fills 50 terabytes of storage so it is housed at the UNM Center for Advanced Research Computing (CARC), which is equipped to deal with massive storage requirements.
The data was initially stored in a proprietary format with private information. CARC director Patrick Bridges created an automated process that downloads the original scans, strips the confidential information, and transfers the files to an open source format.
“With 150,000,000-plus images we needed an automated way to do this and Patrick was the one who figured it out,” Edgar explained.
CARC network and storage specialist Hussein Al-Azzawi designed and deployed a dedicated enterprise storage system to host the huge datasets of CT scans, created a secure tunnel between OMI and CARC for data transfers, and built the virtual environment which hosts the back-end servers of the project.
"The completion of this project is a great example of the collaboration between UNM research computing and UNM Information Technologies," Al-Azzawi said.
Shamsi Berry, UNM alumna now at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, served as the biomedical informatics consultant, developing the list of data needed to best empower future research.
Ronald Estrada from IT Applications, and Erik Richert and Ben Archuleta from Arts & Sciences IT designed and deployed the database and website, which will be maintained by UNM IT. The funds for ongoing maintenance will be from UNM.
“Grace Faustino from the Office of the Vice President of Research was project manager and was instrumental in keeping things moving along smoothly. It’s definitely a cooperative effort,” Edgar observed.
Scientists and researchers are creative people. They can always dream up new research, new ways to help people, new ways to understand the world. We hope that this resource will allow some of those dreams become reality,” she said.