Growing human skin may sound like science-fiction, but scientists from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine are working on a way to do just that. Inspired by conventional printers and their cartridges, the research team believe that they could soon ‘print’ human skin which would transform the lives of wounded soldiers and burn victims.
Speaking to CNN, Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the institute, said: “We started out by taking a typical desktop inkjet cartridge. Instead of ink we use cells, which are placed in the cartridge. We expand the cells in large quantities. Once we make those new cells, the next step is to put the cells in the printer, on a cartridge, and print on the patient.”
As fantasic as it sounds, the team believes that it could be a reality within five years. The project is currently in pre-clinical phases, but creating replacement skin for burn victims could become a reality.
Those most likely to benefit from the research are wounded soldiers returning from combat theatres. According to the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine, burns account for 5% to 20% of combat-related injuries. As such, it is no surprise to learn that the Wake Forest institute is a branch of the U.S. Department of Defense and it will receive approximately $50 million in funding.
The skin bio-printer itself is expected to be a converted office printer, but with the addition of a three-dimensional “elevator” that builds on damaged tissue with fresh layers of healthy skin. The skin printing process will first see a skin sample taken from the patient. The sample will be about half the size of a postage stamp, from which skin cells will be separated and replicated on their own in a specialized environment.
The printer is then placed over the wound, allowing the flat-bed scanner to “move back and forth and put cells on you,” Atala said. The cells then harden, mature and grow into new skin.
It is not just the Wake Forest Institute that is working on this procedure. Other universities, including Cornell University and the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, are also working on similar projects and will announce their research at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Washington this weekend. It is expected that announcements will include the possibility of organs being grown as well as skin.