“We can print an animal and structure the layers so that they feel like real tissue, and make a model a person could dissect without ever having to wear gloves, use sharp tools or kill an animal.”
And the rats rejoiced.
The National Anti-Vivisection Society reports that an estimated 6 to 12 million animals are dissected in the United States each year. That’s just so messed up in so many ways, not the least is which studies have shown that students who use humane alternatives to dissection score as well or better on performance tests than students who participate in dissection.
But this isn’t a story about how depressing dissection is, it’s a story about how great one Maryland couple is and the wonderful ways in which 3D printing can be put to smart, altruistic use.
Bart Taylor was working as a necropsy technician for a medical research institute when he bought a 3D printer. But like many people when presented with a novel new gadget, he wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. When he asked his wildlife biologist wife, Tara Whittle, she offered up the idea of a true-to-life animal model. And thus their company, NecropSynth, was born. The startup is dedicated to creating 3D-designed and printed, accurate anatomical models for scientific and education purposes. And even cooler than the premise itself: They plan to make all the schematics available for free.
According to their site, the goals are to:
- Open high quality scientific education to a wider body of students, no matter their socio-economic status.
- Make scientific education more affordable for schools and educators.
- Reduce the exposure of students to potentially harmful chemicals.
- Increase ethicality of scientific education by reducing the number of animals sacrificed by providing an equivalent alternative.
With 3D printers and plastic filaments gaining in accessibility and affordability, Taylor estimates each printed rat could cost as little $2 to $3, compared to anywhere from $8 to $12 per rat from a biological supply company, reports Smithsonian.com.
“We think that reducing the cost makes it so that education is far more open. It can help bridge the gap that socioeconomic class puts between schools that may not be able to afford biological specimens and dissection equipment,” Taylor says.
The couple plan to print the vascular, nervous and gastrointestinal systems as tubes that could then be injected with gels to highlight them. Rats prepared like from suppliers can cost up to $25 a rat.
They brought their idea to the National Maker Faire in Washington, D.C., and were surrounded by a lot of excitement.
“Everyone loved our idea,” Whittle says of the feedback they received from Faire attendees. “They all recognized the issues of budgeting and safety and non-standard models being used in classrooms.”
They are calling their prototype the SynthDawley, in honor of the Sprague Dawley rat, the red-eyed albino rat with the misfortune of being the most popular choice for use in biomedical studies. They started with a rat because that’s what they were most familiar with, but other animals are on the horizon.
Imagine one day, a teacher might just be able to print up a classroom of macroscopically-accurate plastic frogs. Kids will be spared the chemicals and trauma of slicing up animals ... and millions of creatures could be spared the gory fate of a student's scalpel.