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CSU Vets Refine Art of Artificial Tissue

Dean Hendrickson, Fausto Bellezzo and their company, SurgiReal, produce fake skin for surgical training.

Colorado State University veterinary student Paul Ryan cuts into a SurgiReal artificial body wall.

Colorado State University

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The skin they sell is fake, but the entrepreneurial achievements of Colorado State University equine surgeons Dean Hendrickson and Fausto Bellezzo are 100 percent real.

Drs. Hendrickson and Bellezzo are the brains behind SurgiReal Products Inc., a manufacturer of suture pads used by students at more than 140 veterinary, medical and nursing schools nationwide.

Gone are the days of practicing and fine-tuning surgical techniques on carpet scraps, orange peels, bananas and pigs’ feet.

“The next generation of medical students will say, ‘We saw something where people used carpet pads—really?’ said Hendrickson, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS.

“I had a donor say, ‘You’re turning the world upside down with this,’ and I said, ‘No, I’m just trying to train surgeons.’”

SurgiReal’s extensive product line ranges from a $19.99 translucent suture pad to a $99.99 five-layer tissue pad that oozes fake blood. Also available are a $96.25 small intestine model and the $2,195 Equine Simulator 1.0, an artificial horse’s head designed for practicing everything from eye nerve blocks to jugular catheter insertions.

All that and more from a Fort Collins, Colo., company that started sales in 2013 and is expecting $400,000 in revenue this year.

Hendrickson, the former dean of CSU’s Professional Veterinary Medicine Program, got the idea for SurgiReal from the special effects he saw in movies.

“If they look that good, could you make something that also felt like the real tissues?” he recalled.

A connection led him to the chemical company DuPont, which supplied silicone to special effects artists. A small grant and a partnership with Bellezzo, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, brought about experiments with silicone, molds, filaments and fake blood.

The university-affiliated business incubator CSU Ventures helped the veterinarians launch the company and this past spring presented them with an award for innovative excellence.

SurgiReal recently hired a full-time salesperson and expects its 2,100-square-foot factory to soon churn out new training gear to better serve the nursing, physician assistant and dermatology professions.

“There are a few new products in the research and development phase and others just starting to hit the market—for instance, the tensioning base for our small suture pads line,” Bellezzo said.

Colorado State veterinary student Paul Ryan practices on SurgiReal products instead of, in his words, “bananas, lots of bananas.”

Powdered artificial blood—just add water—leaked from a five-layered tissue pad when a scalpel-wielding Ryan cut into it. He clamped a simulated vessel and tightened the suture.

“If you don’t tie it off well enough, it will continue to seep,” Ryan said. “These models are as close as I’ve ever seen to the real thing, honestly. It’s an incredible improvement over fruits and vegetables.”

Mary Jo Wiemiller, MS, who leads the physician assistant program at Marquette University, provides SurgiReal suture pads for her students.

“They are the most realistic product we’ve used to simulate human tissue—far superior to bananas, pigs’ feet or other products,” she said.

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