By Anastasia Christakou, British Science Association Media Fellow


Poor Stan. Stan gets killed by over-enthusiastic science students four or five times every week.

When I met him at the British Science Festival on the Medical Simulation Tour, Stan was conscious, blinking and breathing like a normal-middle aged-man. But he can go into anaphylactic shock at the press of a button. He can turn into an 80 year-old woman with a 40-year smoking habit at the press of another.

Dr Karen Bielby-Clarke, a lecturer in life sciences simulation at the University of Bradford, assures me that Stan has it easy. Other mannequins like him can be used in military training; “they would dump him in a simulated mine-field, and you’d actually have to go and rescue him”, she says. She explains that Stan is actually iStan, a £40,000, very high fidelity human patient simulator by CAE Healthcare. At Bradford’s brand new Integrated Life Sciences Learning Centre, he helps students understand the effects of drugs on the physiology of the human body.

The simulator is made out of metal, rubber and latex. “He is basically designed to mimic a human as far as possible”, Karen says. The whole system includes the mannequin, and a highly sophisticated computer programme. The programme is updated with real-world clinical data, which enables it to alter the system’s “physiology” to mimic a number of pre-existing conditions, such as heart disease or asthma, and react in a realistic way to the administration of drugs.

Using the computer, Karen administers propranolol, a beta-blocker typically used to treat high blood pressure. Stan’s previously normal read-out responds rapidly, his heart rate drops, alarms go off; “he is not happy”, Karen says, and swiftly restores him to quieten the system.

Stan’s system allows students to experiment and learn about the effects of drugs on the healthy and diseased body, without putting anyone at risk. This sort of training is very important for students in fields such as pharmacology, chemistry, life and medical sciences. It is no longer possible to use animal tissue to investigate the effects of drugs on living systems, as animals can only be used in research that produces novel findings, not in teaching. Of course, it is also not possible to test the effects of even safe drugs on students themselves, although this was not unheard of a few years ago.

In the lecture theatre, Stan is lying next to what looks like a cross between a billiards table and an enormous tablet. “This amazing piece of technology allows our students to literally “get to grips” with human anatomy!” Karen says. Touching the screen of the device, the life-size image of a human body can be manipulated into a digital dissection, revealing detailed slices through tissues, from liver to brain.

Leaving the lecture theatre felt a little like leaving a TV set. I left Stan alive and well, but with the start of the teaching term just around the corner, he is due yet more adventures.

Dr Anastasia Christakou is a 2015 British Science Association Media Fellow. Her Fellowship was funded by the BBSRC, and her placement was at Nature. Anastasia is an Associate Professor in the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences at the University of Reading.