For centuries, medical students have learned anatomy and surgical techniques on cadavers. This is fine, aside from one tiny problem: They’re dead.
"Cadavers are perfect for gross anatomy training, and it's very common for physicians to learn how to do things on cadaver parts," explains Dr. Christopher Sakezles, founder of SynDaver, a synthetic cadaver company selling models that pump blood and breathe. But operating on a cadaver differs from the reality of operating on someone who reacts to the incisions or treatment. That’s why Sakezles’s SynDavers provide a different kind of training altogether.
"The endgame of all this is actually to replace a live patient," he says.
In 2004, Sakezles launched a company that provided a library of tissues to replace cadaver parts for medical device testing. The idea grew out of his own experience in graduate school at the University of Florida, for which Sakezles needed to obtain a trachea. Real ones were too expensive, as were animal parts. Eventually, Sakezles’s advisor hired a contractor to build a synthetic one, but it was awful. So Sakezles built his own.
Over the next five years, Sakezles would go on to develop an array of more than 100 tissues made out of salt water and synthetic fibers that could reliably replace human and animal parts for medical device testing. When his company had acquired enough disparate parts, Sakezles put the first SynDaver together in 2009. "It’s not trained to be a replacement for a cadaver," Sakezles says. Instead, SynDavers provides reliable dummies for procedures that involve operating on a beating heart. When students carve up one part, they can easily replace it with another.
Unsurprisingly, the U.S. military has been instrumental in getting SynDavers onto the market. "There's a big push in the military to provide realistic training media for trauma medics, and all the associated personnel," Sakezles says. "And this is one of the ways they're trying to do that."
The Air Force Medical Modeling and Simulation Training (AFMMAST) Central Program Office (CPO) has been funding much of SynDaver’s research and development. The Department of Defense has invested more than $1 million in two phases of SynDaver, which will soon produce something called the Synthetic Patient in 2014. Unlike the Syndavers that have come before it, the Synthetic Patient will be able to move and adjust its pulse and temperature in reaction to external stimuli, realistically simulating a wounded soldier in battle.
SynDaver has also made major partnerships with medical schools. In October, the University of Arizona announced a plan to team up with SynDaver to provide models to its medical students. The company also sells its models, priced at $40,000 a pop, to hospitals, simulation centers, and military medics abroad.
"SynDaver models are unique and they are one of the best in the country, they were actually developed to allow medical students the opportunity to practice procedures and to develop skills they normally would have to do on patients in the past," Dr. Teresa Wu, a faculty member at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, said in a University of Arizona press release. "But now they have these task trainers that are realistic and life-like that they can practice their procedures prior to doing it on a live patient."
The Synthetic Patient, however, will take that level of realism into a new dimension. "It’s really going to complete our project line," Sakezles says.