Bioprinting—or creating new human skin using print technology—seems like the stuff of science fiction, but scientists have come a long way in using this technology to treat patients with skin disorders or chronic wounds.
Now researchers at Wake Forest University’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine have taken this technology to the next level with the first-of-its-kind mobile skin bioprinting system that allows bi-layered skin to be printed directly into a wound.
|A researcher at Wake Forest University’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine works with a bioprinter a team there invented that can bioprint skin developed from a patient’s own cells onto his or her skin. (Image source: Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine)|
At the Patient’s Bedside
What’s unique about the technology is its mobility, which allows the printer to administer wound management at a patient’s bedside, said Sean Murphy, Ph.D., assistant professor of regenerative medicine at the institute, who led the research. “We are using a patient’s own cells to create new skin to heal the wound,” he told Design News. “The mobile aspect allows for delivery of cells directly into wounds, with an organization that replicates healthy skin.”
This direct treatment of a wound “significantly accelerates” its healing as well as the formation of new skin, compared to how bioprinting is typically used today, which is to print skin externally and manually place the tissue onto the patient, Murphy said.
“Currently, skin grafts to treat wounds and burns are the ‘gold standard’ technique, but adequate coverage of wounds is often a challenge particularly when there is limited availability of healthy skin to harvest,” he told us. “Skin grafts from donors are an option, but risk immune rejection of the graft and scar formation.”
Less Expensive, More Effective
The new technology can be used as a less expensive, more effective way to treat an ailment affecting millions of people in the United States—chronic, large, or non-healing wounds such as diabetic pressure ulcers. Currently, treating these wounds are costly because they require multiple treatments, researchers said.
The technology also can be used to treat burn injuries, which account for about 10 percent to 30 percent of soldier injuries from current military engagements and affect about 500,000 civilians yearly, Murphy said. They also can be costly and painful to treat.
To develop the skin using the new printer, researchers isolate and then expand major skin cells—dermal fibroblasts and epidermal keratinocytes—from a small biopsy of uninjured tissue. Fibroblasts are cells that synthesize the extracellular matrix and collagen, which play a critical role in wound healing; while keratinocytes are the predominant cells found in the epidermis, the outermost layer of the skin.
The cells are mixed into a hydrogel and placed into the bioprinter, Murphy said. “A hand-held device is then used to scan the wound, feeding data into the software, which then tells the print heads which cells to deliver exactly where in the wound layer by layer,” he explained. “This process replicates and accelerates the formation of normal skin structure and function.”
The bioprinter then deposits the cells directly into the wound, replicating the layered skin structure, and accelerating the formation of normal skin structure and function, Murphy said. Researchers published a paper on their work in the journal Nature’s Scientific Reports.
The Wake Forest team already has demonstrated a proof-of-concept of the system by printing skin directly onto pre-clinical models. The next step is to conduct further research on the technology on the way to eventually testing it in human patients, Murphy said.
“Our mobile bioprinter has the potential to eliminate painful skin grafts and the disfigurement from scarring that patients currently endure,” he said. “A mobile bioprinter that doctors could use to help heal these wounds with a patient’s own cells has many ramifications—lives would be saved, doctors and patients have a better option, and there could be significant cost savings.
Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.
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