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Tampa's SynDaver Labs introduces 'synthetic dogs' for veterinarian training

Dr. David Danielson, 49, of Tampa explains in detail how the synthetic canine could train future veterinarians on surgical procedures at the SynDaver Labs in Tampa on  Tuesday. OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times 

Dr. David Danielson, 49, of Tampa explains in detail how the synthetic canine could train future veterinarians on surgical procedures at the SynDaver Labs in Tampa on Tuesday. OCTAVIO JONES | Times
Published May 31, 2016

TAMPA — Tampa biotech company SynDaver Labs, which makes synthetic human cadavers for training doctors, has unveiled a new product aimed at veterinarians.

The $28,500 synthetic dog has organs, a heartbeat, circulatory system and synthetic blood. It's much like the synthetic humans the company makes, which are used in surgical and trauma training.

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SynDaver is hoping to collect $24 million in donations from individuals and institutions to get the product into veterinary schools. The company says it will change the way veterinarians are trained and could save the lives of dogs who die during or after veterinary training.

"This is the beginning of the end of animal testing," said SynDaver's founder and chief technology officer, Christopher Sakezles. "You have to provide an alternative to animal cruelty."

Today, students at some veterinary schools practice on shelter dogs that are under anesthesia, Sakezles said. Afterward, he said, the dogs are euthanized. The practice, called terminal surgery, has come under scrutiny.

"How many physicians are being trained today? None of them did terminal surgeries on humans," said Dr. Michael Blackwell, a supporter of the technology who has argued against training with live dogs.

Blackwell sits on the board of directors for the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association. A retired veterinarian in Knoxville Tenn., he was dean of the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine from 2000 to 2008 and said the college conducted terminal surgeries in its curriculum at the time. The college has since ended the practice.

"In fairness to our academic institutions, there have been steps taken to reduce necessary uses of animals but I think there's still room to improve," he said.

But one expert said SynDaver is misleading people by claiming terminal surgeries are still widespread in veterinary programs.

"I'm honestly not sure if any veterinary schools still have terminal dog surgeries as part of the core curriculum, but I know for certain that many of the schools I've been involved with stopped doing these procedures years ago," said Daniel Fletcher, associate professor of emergency and critical care at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Some alternative options include conducting procedures on animal cadavers or spending more time doing hands-on clinical rotations. Other schools, like the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine and Cornell say they have phased terminal surgery out completely.

"Largely it was not necessary," said Tom Vickroy, executive associate dean of UF's veterinary college. "It was controversial. It sort of goes against the basics: to save animals lives and make their lives better."

UF has worked closely with SynDaver to ensure that the synthetic tissues act like the real thing. A gastrointestinal tract, for example, splays open when cut, making it difficult to sew back together.

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"Our surgeons are working on this, and giving the engineers feedback if a tissue is too tough, too soft, or doesn't react properly with a scalpel," Vickroy said.

Experts and the company say the top issue with this technology is likely the cost.

"Medical schools have much deeper pockets and are more able to get these expensive technologies," Vickroy said.

He added, however, that the cost of the traditional methods for training is also very expensive, and much less efficient.

SynDaver intends to donate as many as 1,000 fake dogs to nearly 50 veterinary schools around the world. It will then make money by charging annual service fees to replace worn parts and update the technology.

In the last 12 years, SynDaver has sold $10 million worth of its synthetic human products. This project, if it goes to plan, will triple the company's size within the next year.

SynDaver gained nationwide attention last year when Sakezles, the founder, appeared on an episode of Shark Tank. The company won a $3 million investment from one of its celebrity investors, tech mogul Robert Herjavec, but the deal later fell through.

Contact Alli Knothe at Follow @KnotheA.


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