Realistic synthetic cadavers allow for advancements in surgical training

Health |  2 min. read

“You’re so plastic!”

Now if someone said that to you, or to me, we’d be insulted.

But if you say that to “Synthia” or “Myra”, for instance — well, it’s just a statement of fact.  Because they are plastic — polymer cadavers to be exact, made for medical teaching by SynDaver (get it?).  They make “men” too, and “animals” (cats and dogs and horses).

So — good for George Romero (remember Night of the Living Dead?) and anyone else making a zombie movie maybe, but why should the rest of us care?  Because you don’t want to hear your doctor standing over you in the Operating Room, saying, “Hmm, that’s not what it looked like in the book.”

We want our doctors to know what they are seeing and what they are doing — so having a very detailed, very realistic “body” to learn on is a very good thing.

SynDaver Labs wants to keep the details of their processes secret, which we respect, but we do know a little bit about their secret sauce. For the synthetic muscles, blood vessels and other soft tissues, they’ve concocted a polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) aerogel cross-linked with adipic acid. This material is quite versatile and can take on different physical characteristics, including the ability to absorb and retain water – remember, our bodies are around 80 percent water. And this aerogel would not be possible without petrochemicals such as ethylene for the PVA part and benzene for the adipic acid part.

And besides the fact there is something a little creepy about working on a real dead body (even if that person willed themselves to science), a polymer cadaver not only keeps longer than a real one (don’t think about that too much), it’s reusable.  If students are learning how and where to cut, or how to sew up a cut — when they are done, SynDaver can fix all that up, or replace a part.

Because SynDaver doesn’t just make entire bodies, it also makes body parts and sections.  So, when Walter tells the Dude in The Big Lebowski, “You want a toe?  I can get you a toe, believe me.” — yes, we can believe him.  Or a spine or a stomach or a spleen — just about any other part of “us”.  (And speaking of movies, and TV, you might have seen SynDaver’s work, if you’ve watched Grey’s Anatomy.)

Ok, so we know you’re dying (sorry) to see what a synthetic cadaver looks like.  We’ll just warn you — it looks like we do, underneath the skin — so it’s pretty graphic.  But if you’re ready, the folks at Atlas Obscura brought a camera to the story, and here is their tour of the synthetic cadaver factory.

So, is there any downside to SynDaver’s polymer people?  No.  Not unless you planned to follow in the footsteps of Burke and Hare (we’ll let you Google that yourself).