MINNEAPOLIS — Dick Bianco has a panic button under his desk.
As head of Experimental Surgical Services at the University of Minnesota, he's been the focus of animal rights activists' rage.
Bianco estimated that up to 300 sheep are "sacrificed" each year as part of his experiments in heart valve research. Pathology staff members kill the sheep with an overdose injection of a drug similar to what a veterinarian would use to euthanize a pet.
Bianco speaks out in support of animal experimentation and accepts his status as a public figure of the biomedical research industry. But he sees it differently when animal rights groups try to influence students.
"My solution is to bring the students to us," he said. He invites high school students to his lab for field trips to "counteract" PETA's message that using animals for research is wrong.
Bianco tests heart valves in animals before the valves go on to human trials. He proactively promotes research like this, which has drawn threats in the past.
Activist Camille Marino, out of Florida, posted a threat against Bianco on her website negotioationisover.net in 2009.
"We should not be surprised when the unconscionable violence inflicted upon animals is justifiably visited upon their tormentors," she wrote.
Animal rights organizations have demonstrated at the University in the past. In 1999, the Animal Liberation Front claimed responsibility for vandalizing research facilities and stealing more than 100 animals.
Frustrated with PETA's access to high schools, Bianco "invited himself" to speak at a high school science teachers' conference about a decade ago.
"Look it," he remembers saying from the podium. "You're letting PETA into your schools — you're not letting us into your schools. We don't want to brainwash your kids. What we want to do is expose them to a real medical research laboratory."
Immediately after his talk, teachers approached Bianco to get information on how to make the tours happen.
Since that day, 10,000 students have toured Bianco's Experimental Surgical Services lab, he estimated.
"Certainly my agenda is (fighting) the anti-science movement of the animal rights," Bianco said. "But it also is, we're going to have a problem in science — young kids aren't interested in it."
The hands moved gracefully, stringing a needle holder into one side of the flesh and threading it out the other. Steadily, they moved down the wound, sewing it up cleanly.
These weren't first-class surgeons. They were high schoolers, only doctors from wrists to finger tips. They wore jeans, sweatshirts and vests. But their hands were in rubber surgical gloves, and they gracefully stitched up the wounds on makeshift patients — pig limbs.
Meanwhile, Bianco was next door implanting a synthetic valve into a sheep. There was more blood in that room, and some students looked away as they walked by.
In their room, the high schoolers followed along as pre-vet junior and lab employee Amanda compared operating the tools to learning how to use chopsticks and told the students to open up a plastic package "like string cheese."
This was one station on Blaine High School's visit to Experimental Surgical Services recently. Some students were queasy — one fainted after seeing a heart and lung out on a table — but the consensus was that the lab made for a pretty cool field trip.
At another station, students used an "echo" machine to see their friend's heart and lungs.
"Have you ever seen your heart?" asked science teacher Tim Riordan, who did the same tour as a high schooler. "This is a first, man. Let's do it."
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