From musical instruments to working guns, 3-D printers can fabricate just about anything. Now researchers at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine have gone even further. A new printer uses an unusual kind of “ink”: human skin cells.
As your body’s largest organ, healthy skin is vital for wellness. God created skin (Job 10:11) to be a protective barrier. When skin gets damaged, the body’s other tissues and organs are susceptible to infection.
Skin grafts are one way doctors try to repair skin and protect what’s underneath. But sometimes injured persons, especially burn victims, don’t have enough healthy skin to move from one part of the body to another. Other times, moving a severely injured person is risky.
Wake Forest’s bio-printer helps solve those problems. The completely portable device can produce skin for a patient almost on demand—whether in a hospital room or on a battlefield.
This 3-D printed result isn’t a fake plastic product or skin from another living creature. Scientists fill the printer with a patient’s own cells. The bio-printer deposits those cells, layer by layer, into a large wound or burn—creating truly custom skin.
How? High-tech lasers first scan the wound, gathering information about size, shape, and depth. A computer then feeds the collected data into specially designed software. The software communicates with two print heads (that look an awful lot like syringes) dangling over the wound. It tells the heads how and where to deposit the skin cells. Sometimes the printer dispenses only a few layers, sometimes many. The newly printed skin helps speed the growth of healthy skin under and around it.
“The technology has the potential to eliminate the need for painful skin grafts that cause further disfigurement for patients suffering from large wounds or burns,” says Anthony Atala, a co-author of the Wake Forest study.
Wake Forest researchers are also experimenting with using 3-D technology to replace bone, blood vessels, fat, nerves, and muscles. Presently, researchers use the bio-printer on fake limbs. But soon they plan to conduct human trials to help save real skin.