SciTech Now Episode 404

In this episode of SciTech Now, a look at a lab that creates synthetic humans and animals; a biomedical engineer finding solutions to health problems; the last standing organisms on earth; and a reptile club that educates people about timber rattlesnakes.



Coming up, a new way to study human anatomy.

We perform some kind of physical test on a live tissue, and then we develop an analog to mimic those properties.

Making an impact with STEM.

I did look to places where I thought I could make a difference.

One of the areas in particular was to use engineering approaches to solve problems in medicine.

One of the toughest animals on the planet.

Potentially, they could survive the journey and deliver, transfer life from Earth to another planet, for example, Mars.

A rattlesnake comeback.

Have a respect for them, and learn about them, and hopefully, you can keep all your friends and your family from killing every snake they see.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...


I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to 'SciTech Now,' our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

Doctors and medical professionals have used cadavers for centuries to better understand human anatomy.

But the use of cadavers has limitations as they're difficult and costly to store and maintain.

Now scientists at a biotech company in Tampa, Florida, have created an alternative.

Here's the story.

At first glance, these humans splayed out on medical tables are a little unnerving, but they're actually just convincing synthetic models developed by SynDaver Labs.

SynDaver got its start as a basic sciences company, and what underlies all of our technology is live tissue testing.

We perform some kind of physical test on a live tissue, and then we develop an analog to mimic those properties.

Christopher Sakezles used his training in polymer science to create these anatomical models.

We make everything out of water, salts, and fibers so that we can mimic both mechanical properties and physical properties like thermal conductivity.

Dielectric properties so we can get proper heating in an MRI coil.

At the SynDaver Lab, technicians work on creating anything from body parts to detailed anatomical humans that bleed.

They can even exhibit shock for a real live training experience.

The design and construction of these SynDavers takes in every scientific angle in anatomy.

Even the simplest part in our products that you might look at and think that they're simple, something... radial artery.

You start as with a real radial artery, and you can run that through a battery of tests that might include the resistance to puncture through the vessel.

Speaking strictly mechanically, you use something called finite element analysis to model that part and the surrounding parts to create a model that's going to perform like the real thing.

At the end of the day, that's what we want to do.

The company has been making synthetic human cadavers for about a decade but turned to creating dogs after receiving a request from Christopher's alma mater.

The University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine is our partner.

They approached us about this time last year wanting to create something synthetic that they could use to replace both live animals and animal cadavers on the canine side.

For ethical reasons, the university stopped using live animals during surgical training, but using real cadavers proved challenging.

The properties of the tissues change immediately after death much more radically once you freeze them, and certainly after you preserve them.

When you use a bad model like that, you get something called negative training transfer.

That simply means that you're training your students how to do things wrong.

You're teaching them incorrectly.

So, what we've done is created a synthetic for their application that mimics live tissue better than the dog cadavers do.

The SynDaver canine's strikingly lifelike components help ensure a productive training experience for students.

I wanted something that was so realistic that it would give a same experience that if you were to do surgery on a live animal.

Dr. David Danielson, the veterinary technical VP at SynDaver, is passionate about the details.

Texturally, we wanted the skin to behave properly so can cut it.

You know, it gives you the same feel and depth of cut as it would if it was real.

How to suture properly.

So it had the same drag and pull so that you could learn how to properly close.

Then, of course, the aspect of some of the pathologies internally.

Removing part of the spleen or doing the biopsy of the liver or any of that.

We really wanted those students to learn to do it exactly as if it was on a live animal.

After we've closed this layer in a simple continuous pattern, we'll come and back and close the most superficial aspect.

Dr. Stanley Kim teaches small animal surgery at the University of Florida and gave feedback during the tweaking process.

SynDaver originally came up with an excellent prototype, but there were some very important anatomic details within the abdomen that we wanted to make sure were in there so we could really simulate a very realistic experience.

The feedback that we provided to them, I think, was critical for them to develop this model that I think is a very suitable representation of a live animal.

Surgical professor and veterinarian Dr. Brad Case shares the enthusiasm felt by his colleague.

The great thing about this is we now have a model that we've completely eliminated the ethical concerns, and we've got a very accurate, at least the most accurate model that I've ever seen in regards to tissue texture, vascular anatomy, and so now these students get a real-life experience.

And the SynDaver canine's most gruesome element appears to be one of its most crucial for accurate surgical practice.


I think one of the biggest benefits, honestly, is the bleeding and seeing the bleeding.

Because with the cadavers you don't get a lot of that.

And in real life, with the animals that we're going to be working on in the future, they're going to bleed, and it makes things a little bit harder and more challenging.

We had a number of them discover that their ligatures weren't tight enough and then they had a bleeding vessel, and they had to deal with that.

They can hear the heart rate is the background.

They can palpate the pulsing vessel.

They can apply digital pressure to cause temporary hemostasis, and now you got to troubleshoot how to deal with it.

So, I think that is an aspect of surgery which is stressful and challenging, and now they've gotten a dose of that in a safe, positive environment.

Unlike operations in terminal labs where subjects are eventually euthanized, the SynDaver canine can be used repeatedly without harm.

There are still quite a few vet programs in the world, mostly outside the U.S.

now, that still use live canines.

With this product, we'll be able to put a stop to that altogether.

And there are health benefits for humans too.

Unlike any kind of cadaver product, you don't have to worry about biohazards.

You don't have to worry about the carcinogens, you know, formaldehyde and the COPD and effects that instructors see after long exposure to that.

Plus you get that live tissue experience.

The SynDaver canine's future seems bright, and its evolution is already being discussed.

Now we're talking about doing really challenging things like masses and complicated surgeries that even specialists will have to kind of learn, or if you would like to experience, we can do them on this platform.

So it's just kind of building on this and making it more challenging, creating that perfect scenario.

All the potential in the world is here, and it'll be an ongoing relationship.

And as new clinical scenarios come up that we want to re-create, we have the potential to alter the model a bit to make it suit that application.

So I think that's the great thing.

We can go wherever we want.


As a biomedical engineer, Gilda Barabino utilizes engineering principles to find solutions to health problems.

Outside of the lab, she continues to make an impact in her community as an advocate for diversity in science and engineering.

She joins us now to discuss her journey to becoming a leader in STEM and how she's inspiring others to follow a similar path.

At the time that you got into the field that you're in now, there probably weren't that many women and not so many people of color.


What made you want to keep going into it?

I believe part of my motivation is I've been a career-long advocate for social justice, even as a child.

I always wanted to make a difference and impact the world.

And part of that -- I had a interest in medicine, but not as a clinician.

So, as a African-American female without role models, I did look to places where I thought I could make a difference.

And one of the areas in particular as I started out with my graduate studies, for example, was to use engineering approaches to solve problems in medicine such as the abnormal blood flow in sickle-cell disease.

Just in the time that you've been in involved in this, what have you been surprised by?

Is it the pace of technological innovation?

Is it the kind of new methods that we're working on?

What's caught your eye?

What's caught my eye is that changes, discoveries, are rapid.

The innovations that are taking place are very quick.

Technologies that were available when I was a graduate student have increased now so that we can do more sophisticated studies than we could do even 20 years ago or 30 years ago, for example.

But what also catches my eye is even though we have those rapidly changing technologies, the access to the technologies is not necessarily there.

So, the communities that have access to the discoveries that are there, for example, or even those who have the opportunity to practice science to be the ones coming up with the innovative solutions.

And that's part of the focus that I've been doing is how do we bring more talent to the table?

Even your focus on sickle-cell.

I mean this is a conscious choice.


So, one of the things that I've been most interested in is like how to give back to your own community.

When I went through my own studies, there were very few role models.

I was the first African-American in the graduate program at Rice University in chemical engineering, for example.

So, I've been accustomed to breaking barriers and opening the doors for other.

And that's been something that I've been very conscious of as I go through -- the need to have role models and to have others who look like you in these fields, that you can mimic.

And also, that the need for an extended talent pool so that we have multiple perspectives that come to the table to come up with solutions.

One of the things you mentioned is that this isn't a sort of superstar sport -- that science is collaborative.

Science is about teams.

That it's social.

It's not just about you in a lab by yourself.


That's an important aspect that often gets overlooked.

I tell my students all the time that science is social.

The same society that we work with that we are all part of, our laboratories, our institutions are just a microcosm of society.

If we really want to come up with the best solutions, we have to work collaboratively.

And I believe that in particular, the key innovations that are really going to make the difference and to come up with the solutions that we need for the complex problems that we're solving now, are going to come when we work across disciplines, we work across fields, we partner, we partner across institutions, we partner across the departments, agencies.

We have partnerships not only with the students, the faculty, and the administrators and those in government agencies, for example, but we also bring in the community, the community that we're serving.

We engage parents.

We engage teachers.

When all of that works together collaboratively, at multiple levels, then we have the best chance of coming up with decent solutions.

How do you inspire a young person to get into this field?

Part of what I think can inspire young people is if they can see how they can be involved, how they can belong, and how they can use what they're learning, the knowledge discovery to impact the world that they live in.

You asked earlier about some of what motivated me.

One of the reasons why I looked at sickle-cell disease in particular is because it predominantly affects African-Americans.


And I specifically wanted to give back to my community during my graduate studies, and that was one way to do it.

There are other problems that I think people see.

If you think about sometimes what motivates people to go into medicine -- they had someone in their family who had cancer, for example.

What motivates someone to look into a technical field where they had someone in their family who was an engineer?

I'm particularly interested in how do we make sure that everyone has exposure and sees these opportunities regardless of whether or not they had someone in their family to help direct them.

Gilda Barabino, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you.

Eons from now when some believe few species will still exist, tardigrades, also known as water bears, will be one of the last ones standing on the planet.

Professor of science at Harvard University Avi Loeb joins us via Google Hangout to discuss one of the toughest animals on the planet.

Thanks for being with us.

So, give us an example of how tough a tardigrade is.

Well, the tardigrades were taken to space about a decade ago.

Many of them survived, more than half.

And then they were able to reproduce as soon as they were put back to water.

They were able to reproduce, and they had viable embryos as soon as they were put back to water.

Up there in space, they were dehydrated.

They were exposed to ultraviolet radiation.

And they were put in a vacuum.

That leads people to conjecture that it's possible for them, I mean, since they are a very good astronauts -- they have their own suits, they don't need to be put under special conditions -- that if, for example, there is a rock flung out of the Earth as the result of an asteroid impacting the Earth, potentially they could survive the journey and deliver, transfer life from Earth to another planet, for example, Mars.


So how did we discover them?

Well, they exist everywhere on Earth.

Since they are so sturdy, they are able to survive extreme conditions.

We find them in almost every environment including environments that have very high temperatures close to the boiling point of water down to very cold temperatures.

They seem to preserve themselves even if they are dehydrated, without any water for a while.

They also have, their DNA's very special.

It's able to repair itself.

And so studying them could have some useful medical implications.

Perhaps we can learn how to cure diseases or find some other medical benefits from knowing how they do it.

The important thing to realize is that it's very difficult to kill them.

And so what we were out to examine in the work that we did, the research that we did, was whether any astrophysical catastrophe, any explosion or impact from, let's say, an asteroid on Earth, could eliminate all forms of life including tardigrades.

And what did you find?

We found that they would likely survive almost everything except the death of the Sun.

You know, the Sun is roughly at the middle of its life right now.

In about 7 billion years, it will consume all of its nuclear fuel, and so its... Life as we know it will cease to exist on Earth.

But other than this catastrophe, it seems like they are resilient to other things, like for example an exploding star nearby would not really kill them because the chance of the star being close enough is very small.

Also, an impact of an asteroid will not kill them during the next few billion years.

The probability is less than one in a million, we calculated.

And so they're really out there for the long run.

It's possible that they are agents of transferring life between planets.

This is a process called panspermia.

So if life exists on one planet, it may actually move to other planets.

We now know, for example, of a seven-planet system around a star called TRAPPIST-1, which is about several tens of light years away.

And those seven planets are very densely packed.

So three of them are actually in the habitable zone, in the region where liquid water may exist on their surface, and the chemistry of life as we know it might take place there.

First of all, you have three rollings of the dice to get life on one of these planets.


That increases the chances of life, but moreover, once life forms on one of the planets, it can transfer itself to another one by rocks flying between the planets, landing.

We know that rocks from Mars came to Earth.

We find such rocks.

And so not only that these planets, you know, there are more of them that are in the habitable zone, in the solar system, but also they are densely packed, so it's easier to transfer life from one to another.

And if you ask what kind of animal is best suited to be an astronaut, it's those tardigrades.

How long do they live?

Well, it depends on the conditions.

They don't live very long.

They're roughly one millimeter in size or less than a millimeter in size.

And they could live for a while, but that really depends on under which condition you put them.

I mean are we talking years or are we talking weeks?

We're talking years typically.


How long can they go without those things?

So when they went up to space when they didn't have water, when they were in a vacuum, when they were in the colds of space, how long did they survive?

That was roughly 10 days or so, a week that they were able to... once they were brought back to Earth and put in water, they were able to reproduce.


You know, you're describing something close to the fountain of youth meets the Highlander.

Like some sort of unstoppable force that has to be killed only by the evaporation of our Sun and all the oceans' boiling.

But then also there's a certain magic to the regenerative quality of their DNA that could be something that extends our lives or cures our diseases.

Yeah, that's fascinating.

I mean, we are imperfect animals.

We suffer diseases, and we have a finite lifetime.

If you think about it, there's no reason why we can't optimize our bodies to be much, much better and much longer-lived, much more resilient to conditions.

We are extremely sensitive to changing conditions.

So, you know, if, for example, the climate would change on Earth, one possible remedy for that is to make people more resilient.

And be like water bears.

All right.

Avi Loeb, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you.

My pleasure.


Recently removed from a protected species watch list, the timber rattlesnake is making a comeback in Pennsylvania.

And now one man is on a mission to help spread the word about one of the most misunderstood reptiles in the state.

Here's the story.

Snakes have had some bad press.

It started with the book of Genesis, and things haven't gotten much better since the Garden of Eden.

According to a Gallup poll, more Americans are afraid of snakes than they are of public speaking, heights, and spiders.

But in the forests of Pennsylvania, a man is on a mission to help people overcome their evolutionary impulses and learn to love snakes.

You know, my family's screwed up.

Most people I went to school with had three-wheelers and horses and dogs and cats.

We had snakes, and my dad did the snake hunts.

Bill Wheeler is the driving force behind the Keystone Reptile Club.

His father helped found it in 1968.

Back then, timber rattlesnakes were viewed as the enemy.

The club wanted to change that.

If you kids can understand the hourglass shape to the dark bands, or the Hershey kisses stacked down the side, maybe you'll save some snakes by teaching them that that's not a copperhead.

That's just a snake that I was holding, and he isn't going to hurt anybody.

Today, Wheeler is hosting the annual rattlesnake hunt at the Sinnemahoning Sportsmen's Club.

The event is all about education.

What I want you to look at is next time you find a snake shed, 'cause I don't want you picking up any snake unless you know what you're looking at.

I already know they bite.

Like...but I didn't know that some of them, like, have poison.

I learned how to handle the snakes and which ones are venomous and nonvenomous.

I think the snakes look cute, though.

It's neat watching the kids absorb everything they're taking in and knowing they're down the right path.

It's squeezing around my hand.

The kids get to handle all the nonvenomous snakes they want.

The pros handle the rattlers.

As far as the ecosystem goes, eat a lot of rodents.

Lots of rodents.

I'd like to say I would love to see one year without a rattlesnake or a copperhead in the woods to see what it looks like 'cause we'd be overrun with rodents.

When you hear 'snake hunt,' your first thought might be 'kill.'

This, however, is a conservation effort.

In 1978, the timber rattlesnake was listed as candidate species for threatened or endangered status in Pennsylvania.

The Fish and Boat Commission removed it from that list in 2016.

Even so, these hunts have a strict no-kill policy.

They come in, they give us a snake, we identify it, sex it, and mark it.

All that good stuff.

Use it for the educational tool it is.

Release it right back into the wild.

We want to release where you caught them.

A snake won't do very good if you release it in a different spot.

They have their own track they use throughout their life, and they'll travel that same little semicircle throughout their life.

Timber rattlesnakes can be found in heavily forested mountains across the commonwealth.

They are dangerous, but they're not out to get you.

There's only been one rattlesnake-related fatality in Pennsylvania in the past 30 years.

They are part of a complex ecosystem, both predator and prey, with lifesaving potential.

Snake-venom research has led to treatments for heart attacks, hypertension, even cancer -- breakthroughs that may not have been possible without a little respect.

Have a respect for them.

Respect your outdoors.

It doesn't matter if you're looking at snakes or whatever you're doing.

Respect your outdoors and learn about them.

Hopefully, you can keep all your friends and your family from killing every snake they see.

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by...