Development of artificial human tissue could soon provide medical trainees with the head start they need to become the next great surgeon.
Researcher Leonardo Millon is developing synthetic human tissue that can provide surgical trainees a lifelike model on which to develop their skills. texthere
Independent researcher Leonardo Millon and his team, under the mentorship of Engineering professor Wankei Wan (Director, Graduate Program in Biomedical Engineering), are creating synthetic anatomic models made of polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) that provide a realistic surgical experience for students.
A multiple Western grad, Millon holds a chemical and bio-chemical degree (’00) and PhD in bio-medical engineering (’06).
Currently, human and animal cadavers are used for surgical training but they come with limitations, a key one being they are not quite like living tissue.
The research is attracting a lot of attention, already netting the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) Martin Walmsley Fellowship for Technical Entrepreneurship, and an award of $100,000 over two years. Millon is the first Western graduate to win the award.
As well, Millon has created a start-up company, LifeLike Bio Tissue Inc., to provide surgical training materials to medical schools in southwestern Ontario. He hopes to begin with Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry within the next year.
The model he will produce will give surgical trainees the ability to practice over and over.
“We are proud to honour Leonardo with the Walmsley Fellowship which will accelerate this technology to help him achieve the next level of commercial development,” said OCE President and CEO Mark Romoff, “His technology could have a profound impact on surgical training, giving surgeons the chance learn procedures faster and with more accuracy.”
The fellowship provided the boost needed to go commercial, he says.
“Without this funding I probably wouldn’t have started this company,” says Millon.
He has developed models of different tissues and organs such as the aorta and coronary arteries. They are made from a novel proprietary material that is non-toxic and has a similar composition to soft tissue.
“This really wasn’t on my radar,” admits Millon, whose main research focuses on implantation, such as for bypass surgery. “But the feedback I received was tremendous. Mechanically it’s pretty much the same as skin, the same mechanical properties.”
Schulich associate professor Mackenzie Quantz (Cardiac Surgery) was one of the examiners during Millon’s thesis and saw potential with PVA material.
“To be honest, I can’t really pinpoint what it was that sparked the idea of using it for mimicking skin,” admits Quantz. “But that’s the great relationship we have with bio-medical (program). We create that think tank that allows us to come together on similar problems, with different approaches to the solution.”
Quantz says training opportunities for new surgeons are limited. While current materials look good, they don’t have “the same feel and texture” required for training. He likens the importance of good simulated tissue material to that of flight simulation for pilots and offers a way to move training from the operating room to the classroom.
Millon says with the help of his sister Karen, an Ivey graduate, the pair will look at ways to increase the number of models to be created, as well as prepare to scale up production. Millon says a number of companies worldwide produce artificial human tissue using regular silicone, although they don’t always have the realistic feel that surgeon want.
In the future, it’s possible these materials will be used in medical schools across Canada, North America and globally.