Home / Education / News /  Dissections go digital

New Delhi: Rangoli Aggarwal, 23, a student at the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB) in New Delhi, watches the frog on the screen of her computer as her instructor clicks it, slicing through layers to reveal the amphibian’s bones and organs.

The computer simulation software she is using—Pro Dissector Frog—has been developed by Schneider and Morse Group Llc, an education software company, is part of a growing trend across schools and colleges in India that once used real animals to teach students, sometimes as early as in high school.

Frogs and rats were the preferred animals for dissections. India’s population of frogs has declined sharply, and although there’s no proof that dissections of the amphibian across schools and colleges contributes to that, digital simulations of dissections do help regulate demand.

“Here, we are taught about animal anatomy and physiology through such software," said Aggarwal. “This way I learn all that I need to without wasting any lives."

“The problem is implementing these alternatives in educational institutions. There are so many schools and colleges, which can take a long time in amending their curriculum," said Chaitanya Koduri, science policy adviser of People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an activist organization that has been actively involved in distributing various alternatives to animal dissections in educational institutions in India along with InterNICHE, a London-based non-profit organization that focuses on alternatives to animal use within biological science, medical and veterinary medical education. “We have numerous complaints from college students who don’t want to harm animals for education." Demand for products such as Pro Dissector have been on the rise since late 2011 when India’s University Grants Commission (UGC) emphasized the need to find alternatives to animal dissection because many of the animals used were caught from the wild, leading to a depletion in their natural population. The body, which oversees the functioning of colleges across India, suggested digital dissections as an option.

“The guidelines given by the UGC regarding animal dissections was a brave and informed decision that will greatly help improve the educational system in India," said Nick Jukes, an InterNICHE coordinator in London. “Studies have shown that universities save money when they use alternatives as one CD can be used for years in the whole university, while procuring animals, taking care of them and killing them can be much more expensive. India, which has thousands of universities can greatly benefit from alternatives to animal experiments and dissections."

More than 20,000 CDs and DVDs of alternatives to animal dissections have been sold in India by InterNICHE that has an arrangement with various producers of such software such as Schneider and Morse. This includes at least 2,000 copies of Pro Dissector Frog and 5,000 pharmacology packages that include the ExPharm software developed by R. Raveendran.

Mint couldn’t immediately estimate the number of colleges that have moved to digital dissections or the market opportunity presented by this. An individual licence of Pro Dissector sells for $79.95 (around 4,741 today). Another company, Emantras Inc. sells various animal dissection applications useful for middle school students.

Similar software is being developed in India too. In 1989, Raveendran from Puducherry’s Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research (JIPMER) created ExPharm, a computer-assisted learning package, which simulates animal experiments that can be used to demonstrate the effect of a drug on different animals. “Students can control drug dosages to be given to certain animals and the appropriate response is displayed on the blood pressure monitor connected to the computer," said Raveendran.

A free trial version of ExPharm is available online and the Pharmacy Council of India has asked all colleges offering pharmacy courses to use the software.

In January 2011, Reed Elsevier Plc, a publisher of science books and journals, bought the rights to the software from Raveendran and launched ExPharm Pro in India. Since then, the product which costs 29,700, has attracted 22 subscriptions from various colleges including BITS Pilani, DY Patil and Lovely Professional University.

Much of the demand arises from recommendations such as the ones by UGC and the Pharmacy Council, said Tanu Sharma, manager–operations, Elsevier Health Sciences. “Due to growing concerns from animal rights organizations and environmental bodies, there is an impending ban on animal dissection," said Sharma.

“Pharmacy Council of India, Medical Council of India, and CPCSEA (Committee for the Purpose of Control and Supervision of Experiments on Animals) have all endorsed the usage of such products for educational purposes," she said.

“At undergraduate levels, in zoology and life sciences, it is better to practice on virtual dissection software. As a pilot also, you first practice on simulators and then actual aircrafts. It is important to understand the anatomy of an animal perfectly and then students can work on cadavers. Many of these students might not even pursue life sciences and may end up becoming bankers," said K.K. Sharma, head of the zoology department at MDS University, Ajmer, who was also a member of the expert UGC committee that issued guidelines to phase out animal dissections. Sharma added that he believes animal dissections become pertinent at postgraduate levels.

Not everyone is convinced.

“We are producing a generation of students who have no idea what the animal is made of. In order to understand tissues and blood vessels, you have to feel them with your forceps," said P.K Sinha from the zoology department of Hindu College, Delhi University. “It is unfortunate that we are moving to software; comprehensive knowledge can only be gained after opening the animals."

That’s debatable, according to a veterinarian who teaches at IGIB.

“We should not keep dissecting animals to see things that we already know. Frog dissection in class 12 did not make any difference to my manual skills," said Aggarwal’s instructor Vijay Pal Singh.

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