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Wichita Area Technical College To Use Synthetic 'Dog' For New Vet Tech Students

This spring, Wichita Area Technical College will have its very first class of veterinary technician students. And they will have the opportunity to use new technology: The school is the first in the nation to begin using a synthetic dog--in place of a real one--to train vet tech students.

Veterinary technicians are basically a second set of hands and knowledge for veterinary doctors. Animal anatomy is the base of their training.

For a long time, that familiarity came from doing procedures on animal cadavers or, according to Amanda Hackerott, director of the vet tech program at WATC, staff pets.

“We would have Andy bring his cat in, and we could play with her and do exams and practice different skills on her," Hackerott says.

Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW
Hackerott peers into the SynDanver Canine's mouth.

But, luckily for the staff’s Fidos and Rovers, students will soon have another option for learning hands-on skills.

It's called a SynDaver Canine, a $35,000 synthetic dog cadaver. Hackerott says she thinks the school's model is probably a Weimaraner or something similar. But it will serve as a model to train students to work on dogs of all sizes.

The doggy cadaver isn’t real, but it sure looks like it: It has wide, staring eyes; a toothy mouth with a flopping tongue; sinewy red muscle tissue; pink organs, yellow fat deposits, and a complete respiratory and cardiovascular system. It smells like old wash cloths and pickled beets. To put it in an entirely non-scientific way, it looks like a terrifyingly cool dog zombie.

“She is anatomically perfect. Everything as you would see or expect to see in a real live specimen,” Hackerott says. "Some of the things we anticipate doing, definitely drawing blood from the veins here, and also the jugular vein in the neck. That’s going to be a really big skill for our students.”

It won’t be real blood, but using a mechanical pump and a system of tubing running through the doggy-daver, Hackerott can control heart rate and blood pressure as her students do routine procedures, like check for a pulse. That’s something that definitely can’t be done with an actual cadaver.

It can simulate a variety of pulses to feel.

“Weak can be a sign of shock, bounding could be a sign of trauma and/or shock," Hackerott says. "So it’s important...we can’t tell a real live animal, ‘Pretend you’re going into shock for us so [students] know what it feels like or looks like.'”

Vet schools have been using SynDaver Canines to teach veterinary doctors as a replacement for the live animals and canine cadavers used in training. But Wichita Area Technical College is the first veterinary technician-teaching program in the nation to begin using a synthetic dog. At some point, WATC students will have to practice procedures on real animals, but Hackerott says this model will allow them to hone their skills before moving on to beloved pets.

Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW
A series of tubes run through the synthetic cadaver to simulate pulse and blood flow.

“There’s quite a bit of longevity of the tissues and muscles," she says. "For the arteries and veins I want to say it’s over 1000 uses. So that would be 1000 needle pokes, 1000 catheterizations, and that’s a lot of practice for our students when you think we have more than one artery, more than one vein. We have this entire animal for us to poke and prod and practice on.”

Instructors can also do things like “unintentionally” damage organs, poke veins with needles, and perform intubations over and over again--something that would be unethical and impossible on living animals. The parts can also be replaced when they wear out.

“It’s kind of like the parts that go into a car," says Chris Sakezles, founder of SynDaver labs, which produced the synthetic canine. "You take the parts for the car and you put it together and make a finished system. But you can still take it apart and repair it when you need to. You damage one part, and if you can’t repair it you replace it with a new one. It’s that simple.”

SynDaver Labs is a $50 million company based in Tampa, Florida. It employs about 150 people worldwide, 70 percent of those in the U.S.

In 2015 Sakezles appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank to get funding for the company. He won a $3 million investment from one of the show's celebrity investors, but the deal fell through because of differing opinions on how the business should be structured.

Sakezles started out working in the medical device industry. It was then that he realized the high cost and ethical issues surrounding animal testing. He says he left that line of work a little more than a decade ago to make products designed to take the place of live animals.

“Essentially what we do is we build anatomical models. The long and short of it is that we build bodies for medical training, medical testing, that sort of stuff, and just started extending that design work to animals," he says.

Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW

Human SynDavers have been in use at medical schools such as the University of Florida as well as Wichita Area Technical college in the surgery technician program. Now the synthetic work has extended to animals -- which Sakezles hopes will help end the use of live animal testing and will also stop the use of terminal labs, a common practice in medical device development.

“A terminal lab is a lab where the animal is not allowed to survive, whether the objective is to teach a student or a doctor a medical procedure or to collect data for a medical device development test," Sakezles explains. "The animal is basically anesthetized, you do whatever procedure you’re going to do, and then it’s basically given an overdose of anesthesia to terminate the animal’s life."

The synthetic cadaver is "predominantly made of water" and sutured together, Sakezles says. "Each one of the parts is made from different things, but it’s all water and a variety of fibers and variety of salts.”

He says all of the ingredients, if you will, are completely sustainable. He says chemically the closest thing to a SynDaver that most people will ever see is cabbage and potato soup. (He says no potatoes are harmed in the fabrication process.)

SynDaver‘s synthetic human cadavers have existed for a while, driven by the fact that human cadavers are not so easy to come by. The first model sold in 2013.

“We make a higher-end model called the SynDaver Patient that actually incorporates electro-mechanicals so that the model will breathe on its own, the heart beats on its own, it exhibits body temperature," Sakezles says.

He says the canine model is possible because of everything his company has learned through making the human ones. Through two decades of research, SynDaver has created 100 or so different materials that simulate everything from cortical bone to mucus, ligaments, tendons and joints.

“The kind of experience you get with the synthetic canine is much more like a live animal than a real dog is if it’s deceased," he says. "Once they die and once certain elements are frozen and preserved, the tissue quality goes way down and they become much more rubbery and less like a live animal. You don’t have that problem with our tissues because they’re so good.”

Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW
WATC's SynDaver Canine comes with several pathologies, including a bladder stone and a mammary tumor for students to practice diagnosing.

Sakezles says the SynDaver Canine can also help expose students to pathologies or problems such as bowel blockages and mammary tumors, pretty much on demand. To Amanda Hackerott's surprise, the new canine at Wichita Area Technical College has several pathologies she wasn’t expecting.

“One of the coolest things is she has a bladder stone," she says.

The school was able to afford the doggy-daver, bladder stone and all, with the help of a Department of Education Title III grant for health sciences. And while it wasn’t cheap, Hackerott says looking at projected costs for the use of animal cadavers and all of the equipment that entails, WATC is really saving money in the long run.

It could also alleviate a small hazard vet students encounter when working on real cadavers.

“Animal cadavers are often in formalin. It’s a less toxic version of formaldehyde, so it's stinky and it gets stuck everywhere. And it’s a toxin," Hackerott says. "Being able to reduce that completely from our labs, it’s good practice for the health of our students."

WATC will begin training vet tech students using their SynDaver Canine in the spring semester.


Follow Abigail Beckman on Twitter @AbigailKMUW.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.