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Science Brief, Printing Human Skin

Researchers are developing a specialized skin “printing” system …  that could be used in the future to treat soldiers wounded on the battlefield.

Scientists at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine were inspired by standard inkjet printers found in many home offices. “We started out by taking a typical desktop inkjet cartridge. Instead of ink we use cells, which are placed in the cartridge, said Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the institute.

  • The device could be used to rebuild damaged or burned skin;
  • The project is in pre-clinical phases and may take another 5 years of development before it is ready to be used on human burn victims;
  • Wake Forest will receive approximately $50M from the DoD over the next 5 years to fund projects, including the skin-creating system.

Researchers developed the skin “bio-printer” by modifying a standard store-bought printer. One modification is the addition of a 3 dimensional “elevator” that builds on damaged tissue with fresh layers of healthy skin.

  • Burn injuries account for 5% to 20% of combat-related injuries, according to the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine;
  • The skin-printing process involves several steps: 1st, a small piece of skin is taken from the patient. The sample is about half the size of a postage stamp, and it is taken from the patient by using a chemical solution;
  • Those cells are then separated and replicated on their own in a specialized environment that catalyzes this cell development;
  • Cells are expand  in large quantities;
  • The next step is to put the cells in the printer on a cartridge and print on the patient;
  • The printer is then placed over the wound at a distance so that it doesn’t touch the burn victim. “It’s like a flat-bed scanner that moves back and forth and put cells on the patient”;
  • Once the new cells have been applied, they mature and form new skin;
  • Specially designed printer heads in the skin bio-printer use pressurized nozzles to apply the treatment. (HWM and CNN)

The Bottom Line: Updating our 2/15/11 blog; this device can fabricate healthy skin in anywhere from minutes to a few hours, depending on the size and type of burn; building up the cells layer after layer. However, acquiring an adequate sample can be a challenge in victims with extensive burns since there is sometimes “not enough (skin) to go around with a patient with large burns. The sample biopsy would be used to grow new cells then placed in the printer cartridge. The pressure-based delivery system allows for a safe distance between the printer and the patient and can accommodate a variety of body types. Once the skin-printing device meets FDA regulations, military officials are optimistic it will benefit the general population as well as soldiers.