The back of a sprawling warehouse in Tampa, Florida, looks kind of like entering the Matrix, or some sort of science-fiction movie. There are dozens of bodies floating in tubs full of fluid. They've got red and pink muscles, bright blue veins, and sausage-like intestines spilling out of some of the stomachs.
Tara Hayes is struggling to lift one out.
"They are very heavy when they are loaded with organs and water," says Hayes as she lugs this 6-foot long human form onto an exam table.
As a former personal trainer, she knows what to look for in terms in injuries.
"What am I seeing here? We've definitely got some algae growing in the intestines. You can see the brown," notes Hayes.
"So we'll replace probably most of those intestines, and we've got updated muscles, like the pecs and the shoulders. We've got new ones that we've redesigned so those will get replaced as well."
If you're starting to get confused — let's clear something up. These are not actual people. They're synthetic bodies, produced here at Syndaver labs. Those "replacement parts" Hayes is talking about will be made not of human flesh, but of salt, water, and a bunch of meticulously layered, patented fibers.
These synthetic cadavers have been sent back for repairs — by universities, and other institutions that paid tens of thousands of dollars apiece for them. They're used to teach students and test new medical devices.
Some of the higher-end models produced by Syndaver — which can run close to $100,000 — actually bleed, blink, and have fluctuating body temperature. But Syndaver CEO Christopher Sakezles says you don't have to buy a whole body. You can purchase anything from a gall bladder to a nipple to a knee.
"I think a full intestinal system is something like 900 bucks. You can get a stomach for 250. [You] can buy solid hearts versus chambered hearts, hearts with and without valves, with and without coronary, so it depends on the level of detail," says Sakezles.
Sakezles came up with the idea to produce synthetic body parts back in grad school, working on a medical device project. His advisor paid several thousand dollars for a model trachea that Sakezles calls a "pure piece of crap."
"It was a plastic stick with some spiral rings and a rubber tube in the middle. It was absurd. We got gypped."
Sakezles thought he could do better, so he made his own trachea, which he says was far superior. Fast-forward to today, and Syndaver is a multimillion-dollar company, doing business with the U.S. military and prestigious medical schools.
Syndaver has come pretty close to perfectly re-creating a healthy human body; simulating breathing, trauma, and even pupil dilation. That works great to teach anatomy to med students; they're even used in mortuary schools.
But re-creating imperfect body parts, with diseases and abnormalities, isn't as easy. In New Orleans, someone's trying a more personalized approach.
Holding your cancer in your hands
"Everybody's kidney cancer is a little bit different," explains Dr. Jon Silberstein, chief of urologic oncology at Tulane University School of Medicine.
"It's in a different portion of their kidney. They can be bigger, it can be smaller, it can be closer to other important structures or further away from them. And so understanding that individual nature of the patient's disease is gonna help the surgeon the most."
A few years ago, Silberstein saw an opportunity coming from two different stakeholders. Surgeons, increasingly trained to operate using robots, might be able to improve outcomes if they saw and felt a kidney in their hands before surgery.
He also thought patients could benefit from understanding better what was happening in their bodies.
So Silberstein teamed up with Medical Modeling, a 3D printing company now based in Colorado, and asked them to use multiple CAT scans to create lifelike 3D models of his patients' cancerous kidneys.
"We were trying to allow the surgeon a dry run, an opportunity to perform the surgery essentially on a model that had all the characteristics that were identical to their individual patient," says Silberstein.
The results are a colorful bunch of kidney-shaped lumps strewn about his small office. Some are red, others are white, the newer ones have several colors to distinguish healthy from unhealthy tissue, and connections to other organs.
He knocks one on the table, then picks up a later model which folds and bends more flexibly.
"It's more like sort of the back of an eraser or a really thick gummy bear," he says.
Over the past three years, Silberstein's project has printed out about 20 tumorous kidneys. While each is better than the one before, the textures still aren't lifelike enough to perform a realistic, mock surgery. But there have already been some benefits.
They tested a small group of first-year medical school students who had already worked with cadavers, and had some basic training reading scans. After instruction using the 3D printed kidneys, the students understood the location, size, and risks associated with the tumor much better than they had with a basic radiograph.
The kidneys have also been used to prep the cancer patients themselves.
"We showed about 10 patients their models before doing surgeries, and patients expressed a much better understanding of the surgery, the surgical technique. They asked much better, more-informed questions, and I truly believe it improves some patients' satisfaction," Dr. Silberstein explains.
The future of artificial bodies
The dream scenario might look something like this:
You walk into the doctor's office. The doctor waves a wand around your mid section. Moments later, a 3D version of your own kidney pops out of a machine. The doc hands it to you, then uses a scalpel to demonstrate the surgery they'd like to do, and how your cancer will be removed.
With the passion of people like Dr. Silberstein, and the technology produced by companies like Syndaver, that hands-on medical experience may come sooner than we think.
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