UA explores medicine through simulation

Cahir demonstrates how to use a machine intended to practice laparoscopic surgery (Photo by Nicholas Johnson)

The Arizona Simulation Technology and Education Center might seem like Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory.

However, the disembodied limbs and strange technology lying around the lab is not used to make monsters, but rather to train medical students.

The Lab, known as ASTEC on the University of Arizona Campus, provides simulated environments in which undergraduate and medical students can learn routine medical procedures.

Simulation labs at universities have become a popular way to teach medicine over the last 10-15 years. ASTEC opened in 2005, when Dr. Allan Hamilton turned his neurosurgery laboratory into a simulation center.

“We can do anything here. We can dial up our simulations to the most sophisticated trauma case that you would find, all the way down to something as simple as someone coming in with asthma,” said David Biffar, director of operations at ASTEC.

What makes ASTEC stand out from other simulation labs is its artificial tissue lab. Engineers work with doctors to create life-like tissue using a 3d printer. The artificial human tissue they produce is used to teach basic procedures like how to suture a wound, to more complex procedures like inserting a central line.

“The coolest thing our lab does is, we respond to immediate problems that are going on in a hospital. So, there is nothing better than when we’ve been called upon to help address an immediate safety need in a hospital…We develop our own models. So, someone can come in here and say this what we want to do, and if nothing like that exists on the market, and we see if we can make it,” said Biffar.

Engineer Thomas Cahir shows off a rib cage made in ASTEC’s artificial tissue lab. (Photo by Nicholas Johnson)

It’s common for simulation labs to use a high-fidelity Adult Patient simulators. The simulators are robots that can be programmed to simulate many medical ailments. The patient simulator is so advanced and detailed that it breathes, and its eyes react to light.

“He has pulses, we can make him cry, he breaths, you can intubate him, you can put an IV in, and you can do compressions on this guy. You can even listen to his heart and lungs with a stethoscope,” said Thomas Cahir, the engineer who runs most of the simulations for ASTEC.

The lab has two adult male simulators, an infant simulator, a child age seven to ten, and a pregnant woman named Lucina who simulates birth.

The way ASTEC teaches laparoscopic surgery is similar to the classic board game Operation. Instead of tweezers the simulation uses an actual surgical instruments and cameras. The object of the simulation is to improve dexterity by using surgical tools to carefully move a stack of small plastics pieces from one peg to another.

While its primary use is teaching medical procedures, the ASTEC lab also conducts research. “We’re doing some work with augmented reality for the National Science Foundation… Augmented reality is kind of a guidance, heads up system. A virtual environment that is overlaid on top of the real environment. So, if you’re doing laparoscopic surgery it could be used to overlay a sort of tracking system to assist the surgeon,” Biffar said.

In 16 months, at the start of the 2018-2019 school year, ASTEC will be moving to a new facility. The facility will take up an entire floor in the Health Sciences Innovation Building, which is under construction. One of the interesting new things going into ASTEC’s new lab is a synthetic cadaver lab.

Biffar said about the new facility “We’ll be able to simulate any medical condition out there, while also having a program designate for deploying to the hospital.”

Nicholas Johnson is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service provided by the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach him at

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