We all remember that frog in our biology classroom that we dissected so eagerly to learn about the inner workings of living organisms.
However, while the procedure increased our knowledge, it left us with a feeling of guilt for sacrificing the ill-fated frog in the name of education.
Dissection of animals (termed necropsy) has been an integral component of the study of biology for a long time. On one hand, biology teachers emphasize the value of the hands-on learning that students gain from dissecting animals while on the other hand, ethicists scoff at the idea of killing fellow living beings just for the sake of education.
Both the biologists and ethicists may be satisfied and students may be spared feelings of guilt by a novel solution offered by a start-up company from Maryland called NecropSynth that aims to design and sell artificial 3D printed models of animals for dissection.
NecropSynth is actually a combination of two words: “necropsy” which means an autopsy performed on an animal and “synthetic” which means something made artificially. Thus, the name of the project itself makes its intent crystal clear: to manufacture artificial 3D printed models of animals, as similar to real animals as possible, to replace living animals in classrooms and laboratories.
The idea was conceived by a multi-disciplinary group of people who have dedicated their lives to necropsy. With Bart Taylor as their director and lead designer, the NecropSynth team includes a veteran lab technician and a synthetics fabrication specialist. In consultation with several veterinary specialists and computer designers, this team seeks to liberate human beings from the questionable practice of killing animals for education and research.
Naturally, designing artificial models of animals is no easy job. You might remember Scott Camazine’s Project and how even printing only skulls of animals was such a complicated process. NecropSynth’s project is much more complex.
The team wants to design an entire animal with its skin, blood vessels, bones, muscles and organs.
It wants to ensure that when a biology or veterinary student opens up their artificial model with a knife or a scalpel, he is greeted with blood vessels and organs just as he would be if he were dissecting a real animal.
3D printing was selected by the team as the manufacturing method since it is the only method that can ensure the complexity and accuracy that the team is hoping to achieve. Explaining the usefulness of 3D printing in a Facebook Post, NecropSynth writes:
“The variety of printing materials and resolutions that can now be incorporated into the three dimensional printing of objects makes it possible to simulate differing densities and even the insufflation of fluids mimicking blood, bile, and other bodily fluids.”
The next question the team faced was which animal they should design first. Frogs are the most commonly used animals for classroom dissections, so it would make sense to design a frog model first.
However, the NecropSynth team was more familiar with the anatomy of rats. On account of this familiarity, they decided to design a rat model first.
They have named this model synthDawley after the most commonly used rat in biomedical research called “Sprague Dawley”. According to their website, synthDawley will be a macroscopically accurate model of an adult female rat. The team is first working on the most complex structures namely the blood vessels. The team doesn’t simply want rigid pipe-like structures; it wants to fill those pipes with artificial fluid to Mimic Blood Vessels Filled with Blood.
After this, they plan to design skin, organs, interstitial substance, muscles and bones. Furthermore, Bart Taylor has told 3DPrintHQ.com that that he’s not satisfied with plastic materials such as ABS commonly used for 3D printing. In order to mimic biological structures, something more organic is needed. He says:
“Right now we want a biodegradable, hydrophobic alternative to the flexible filaments we’re experimenting with and the team is looking into it right now.”
The Progress Report on their website shows that they’ve almost completed the vascular system and are moving on to other systems.
If everything goes according to plan, NecropSynth will release the finished design of synthDawley by November of this year absolutely free of cost!
Perhaps you’re skeptical of this project. Indeed, why go through all the hassle of creating artificial models of animals when we can acquire living animals so easily from their natural habitats or breed countless numbers of them in laboratories?
Well, there are a number of reasons. The first, as already mentioned, is the problem of ethics. As noted by National Antivivisection Society (NAVS), as many as 6-12 million animals are killed each year for education. With artificial animal models, this practice is bound to decline thus saving precious animal lives. Another reason is that animals are prepared for dissection using a number of chemicals, many of which are harmful for students.
With artificial animal models, students will be protected from these chemicals. The biodegradable material used in their manufacture will ensure that the entire exercise is as safe as possible. Furthermore, biology and veterinary students would be able to print animal designs as many times as they would want. This will provide them a first-of-its-kind opportunity to learn the internals of animals to their heart’s content.
What can we expect from this ambitious start-up in the future? After synthDawley, the team plans to create artificial models of other animals. According to NecropSynth website:
“Our eventual goal is full production of commonly dissected models (frogs, fetal pigs, fish), less commonly dissected models (cats, dogs), and specific situational models (pathological abnormalities; certain diseases).”
NecropSynth envisions a future where every biology class will uses artificial 3D printed models for teaching anatomy.
Bart says that the team might even consider extending their designs to human models for use by medical students and surgeons!
In the distant future, such artificial models may even make their way to laboratories and may become the source of new discoveries into the mechanisms of diseases.
Sprague Dawley is an albino rat known for its calmness and ease of handling. First bred in 1925, scientists at that time would never have guessed in their wildest dreams that this little creature would provide valuable insights into human diseases such as diabetes and neurological diseases. In time, synthDawley may prove to be even more useful.
This is an era where humans will experiment and learn on Artificial Anatomical Models without doing harm to their fellow living beings. It will bear testimony to the Unlimited Utility of 3D Printing.
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