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Under Our skin

Tampa Tribune, Fla.

09-14-07

Sep. 13--TAMPA In the 1966 movie "Fantastic Voyage," a team of scientists is shrunken to microscopic size and injected into the artery of an important person. The mission: To destroy a blood clot in his brain, then exit the body before the miniature group returns to normal size.

Along the way, the scientists encounter all sorts of adventures, from battling white blood cells to swimming through the fluid of the eye. It's all nonsense, of course, but it made us wonder what it might be like to explore the guts, processes and pathways of a human being. Now, we can. A new National Geographic Channel documentary, "Inside the Living Body," takes viewers on a tour of our organs, cells and biological systems, captured with high-definition endoscopic cameras.

The two-hour special -- airing at 8 p.m. Sunday -- doesn't just give us a glimpse of glistening membranes and flowing blood, but also tells the story of transformation by following a human being from the moment of conception to death.

"The idea was to take the viewer on a journey through the internal workings of the human body," said executive producer Stephen Marsh. "Though we're all very different externally, we wished to show the commonality of our internal life."

Parts of the documentary may get under the skin of some viewers. Scenes of food moving down the esophagus and dumping through a hole in the top of the stomach are enough to make anyone queasy, along with detailed video of yellow fat lining the abdomen. But the images of an ovary pulsating in its sac are mesmerizing.

To enhance actual images of nooks and chambers in the body, the producers employed models and VoluMedic computer-generated imaging technology, a tool used to create 3-D sites within the body prior to surgery. Actual footage came from unrelated medical procedures.

"The footage of the stomach and esophagus was taken by trained physicians using an endoscope passed into the mouth and then down into the stomach," said Marsh, who also is a cellular biologist. "For the images of internal fat, and an ovary, the camera was inserted through the umbilicus."

The documentary also follows the life of a woman -- from birth to death -- using actors of various ages. In her lifetime, the woman will take 600 million breaths of air, consume more than 30 tons of food, grow seven miles of hair each year, and regenerate her skeletal system seven times over.

But over time, her cells will begin to oxidize -- essentially rusting away -- and her body will break down. The producers draw a simple but forceful analogy by comparing the aging process to a photocopied picture: As copies are continually made from copies, the more the original image loses detail.

A person's DNA also makes its own copies, and in doing so duplicates defects and loses initial details. At age 70, the woman's face is a seventh-generation copy of her baby face.

The producers of "Inside the Living Body" consulted with 220 experts in 45 fields of medicine, reconstructing a human being from the outside in. But combining the visual technologies to make a seamless story was the most daunting exercise of all, said Marsh, who has been producing and directing science documentaries for a quarter century.

"How do you bring to life such a complex and remarkable machine as the human body in a way that is both enlightening but entertaining?" he said. "We had to develop new and innovative ways of illustrating what happens there. In all, it was one of the most challenging shows I have ever done."

Reporter Kurt Loft can be reached at (813) 259-7570 or kloft@tampatrib.com.

Inside The Living Body WHAT: A two-hour documentary about our inner workings

WHEN: 8 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: National Geographic Channel

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