It’s vital that surgeons, whether operating on humans or animals, are familiar with how body tissue feels and reacts before conducting their inaugural operation. However, until recently, many veterinarian students were practicing basic surgical and suturing procedures on carpet pads and pig’s feet before moving on to their first “live” patient. But an invention by Colorado State University (CSU) veterinarians has provided students with a substrate that is infinitely closer to the real thing by developing artificial body parts that closely resemble real skin, muscles and vessels – they can even bleed! Of course the real benefit is that no animals (or humans) are hurt in the procedures.

"It is a significant, stressful leap for medical and veterinary students from the classroom to the surgery suite," said one of the inventors, Dr Dean Hendrickson, a veterinarian and director of CSU's Veterinary Teaching Hospital. He adds that the artificial human and animal body parts, such as abdominal walls, provide students with a much greater learning environment that helps bring reality into the classroom.

"Industry standards for training sometimes actually teach incorrect techniques, or skills that don't translate into real-world situations, so students don't have the ability to realistically prepare for surgery before a live patient. These artificial simulations help students master their technique, dexterity and confidence before they operate for the first time on a person or someone's pet."

Clever use of layers of silicone form the artificial tissues, simulating skin, connective tissue and muscle. Built-in artificial "blood vessels" are connected to an artificial blood source that emulates realistic bleeding.

Dr Hendrickson says students practicing sutures will experience blood coming into a wound or incision from both sides of the tissue at realistic locations and rates.

To further increase the realism of the fake tissue, some tissue models are colored to resemble their real counterparts, such as a brown-skinned abdominal wall of a horse, with white layers and red layers representing muscles and tissues.

"Our hope is that, with this model, we can begin to help students build better skills that will make for better outcomes," says Dr Fausto Bellezzo, another veterinarian and researcher at CSU's Veterinary Teaching Hospital and co-creator of the technology along with Dr Hendrickson.

WARNING: The video below shows the students practicing on the fake tissue. Although they are not operating on real animals, the resemblance is very close and perhaps not for the squeamish.

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