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Preserving Innovation

Preserving InnovationCummings School Professor M.S.A. Kumar discusses how the school's new plastination lab will change how students study animal anatomy.

No. Grafton, Mass. [09.02.08] The Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine continues to make technological advances a cornerstone of its academic approach, recently unveiling its new plastination laboratory.

Plastination-a method used in the preservation of body parts and tissue-is currently found in only a handful of veterinary schools across the country, but according to an Aug. 24 article in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, it will "likely revolutionize academic life for students at veterinary schools around the world."

The idea for bringing the process to the Cummings School came from Dr. M.S.A. Kumar, professor of biomedical sciences. Kumar recently spoke with E-News about his involvement in establishing the lab and how he feels it will aid the studies of current and future students.

What is your involvement with the new plastination lab? Why did you think it would be valuable to the Cummings School?

I was interested in getting a unit established at Tufts in order to plan for long-term collection of anatomical specimens that will aid in our teaching, and also to ensure continuation of a quality anatomy program long after I am gone from Tufts. I became interested in this when I was with the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at Tufts Medical School. The generosity of Dr. David McGrath (V'86) toward our veterinary school made that possible in 2000. We hired Jack Hawkes, DVM, as a staff member to manage the plastination unit. Dr. Hawkes has many years of experience in preparing anatomical specimens and is a good craftsman. I sent him last year to Dr. Robert Henry's lab at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Tennessee, to learn the plastination process. Dr. Henry is an exceedingly generous professor with his time, and he got us started in the right direction with the plastination facility.

Having set up the unit, my role is mainly to make sure we acquire specimens that will help in anatomy teaching, while Dr. Hawkes is in charge of the operations of the unit. We have now achieved a facility that is going to be highly efficient in every aspect, from acetone recycling to making sure the unit generates some funds for self-sustaining operation. I now feel that we have the know-how and technology to coordinate the teaching efforts and to combine emerging teaching technologies with our traditional teaching methods. More importantly, we probably have the only facility of its kind in the New England region. There are plenty of opportunities to help other departments within the school develop their collection of plastinated specimens to help teaching. For example, plastinated dissected brains are more efficient, cost effective and an ethical way of teaching neuroanatomy.

Can you describe what plastination is and how it works?

The process involves a carefully dissected specimen, part of an animal or human, that is first thoroughly washed of chemical races, gradually dehydrated in cold acetone, and kept in an explosion-proof freezer under negative pressure. Once the specimen is completely dehydrated in acetone, it is transferred into a stainless steel chamber containing the plastic polymer, which is in liquid phase, and soluble in acetone. Under vacuum in a freezer, the acetone in the specimen is gradually removed, as the plastic polymer infiltrates into the tissues. After a few weeks, the specimen is completely embedded in plastic polymer, removed, and allowed to dry to the touch-also known as the 'curing' process. The plastinated specimen now looks like a plastic model, and has no chemical smell associated with it. The entire process, depending on the initial mass of the specimen, may take 3-4 months to complete, but we can stagger the process and keep the operation efficient and operational all through the year.

What are the advantages and disadvantages?

There are many advantages. Currently, we take an animal and dissect structures carefully to show to students. This specimen often gets damaged, and if students are not careful, may dry up and then it is useless. A dissected specimen, if plastinated, is good for life, and repeated dissections are avoided. The specimen can be safely transported anywhere; it is essentially a plastic specimen now. There are no chemical hazards. Another major advantage is that once we have collected sufficient numbers of good plastinated specimens, I plan to discontinue using many large animals in our dissections. This helps to keep not only the costs down, but also promotes ethical use of animals in our teaching program. Pathological specimens could also be plastinated. Surgical procedures could be demonstrated by plastinated specimens. Students will have 24/7 access to dissected plastinated specimens to review.

Disadvantages--it's labor intensive. The initial dissection and specimen preparation must be meticulous and properly done. Initial set-up costs are high. Ways to counter these are available-we are having some students who have time to undertake careful dissections to help us in specimen preparation. In the long run, the facility should attract interest among medical schools and we may be able to generate some revenue.

Can you give a specific example of a scenario a student may encounter where plastination would help them better understand animal anatomy? How will this understanding inform their eventual practice as veterinarians?

Dr. Hawkes is making some specimens to demonstrate abdominal anatomy in relation to surgical sterilization of the dog or cat. In some cases we have third-year students who working in the spay lab for the first time that often ask me for a dog or a cat they could review the anatomy of. In some cases we may not have one to spare. But a plastinated specimen will provide instant review of the regional anatomy associated with spay surgery. We could prepare other specimens that will be extremely helpful for students to review anatomy. The plastinated cross sections, for example, will be extremely helpful to understand CT/MRI scans.

How will the new plastination lab boost the Cummings School's reputation? What other procedures or teaching techniques is the Cummings School utilizing in addition to plastination to improve its animal anatomy education?

The school philosophy has been to teach medicine with ethical use of animals. We have continued this vision with the implementation of a small-animal donor program to acquire cats and dogs for teaching. This program has gained national attention, and anecdotal evidence indicates that some of our students join the Cummings Veterinary School because of Educational Memorial Program (EMP). Plastination will make the ethics principle more effective by helping us reduce the number of large animals. We could extend our plastinated anatomical specimens for use at other schools. In the long run, we will be the main facility for the entire university.

I can foresee in the near future a paucity of trained classical anatomists as we reach retirement age. It is important that we keep up with technology-based teaching methods. At the same time, it is important that the students are exposed to dissection-based anatomy instruction as well, which will continue through the EMP.

Profile by Kaitlin Melanson, Web Communications.

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