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3D printing grows up, heals wounds by printing skin

Scientists have created a mobile bioprinter that when filled with a patient's cells, prints skin directly into a wound.

We've been writing about 3D printing for what seems like forever. From its sustainable benefits to its ability to spit out $4000 tiny homes and grand architectural statements alike. Not to mention entire colonies on Mars.

But now additive manufacturing has crept into a new realm with the first-ever mobile bioprinter; it doesn't layer plastic into design shapes, but rather, prints skin onto wounds. It's not the first time that 3D printing has been used in medicine – they've used it to create organs and vessels and limbs. But the practicality and efficacy of a mobile skin printer surely seems like it could come in handy.

“Imagine a day when a bioprinter filled with a patient's own cells can be wheeled right to the bedside to treat large wounds or burns by printing skin, layer by layer, to begin the healing process,” notes a statement from Wake Forest School of Medicine. “That day is not far off.”

Scientists from the school's Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM) have created the mobile skin bioprinting system that sounds even more futuristic than a 3D-printed colony on Mars.

For now, skin grafts are the go-to method for treating large wounds and burns, but this becomes challenging when there is not enough healthy skin to use. With millions of Americans suffering from chronic, large or non-healing wounds, the cost is usually exorbitant because often times multiple treatments are required.

This would help solve that. It could also be used for military personnel, for whom burn injuries account for 10 to 30 percent of combat casualties in conventional warfare, say the researchers. (Who tried it out on fake arms, so no need to cringe when viewing the photos below.)

“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,” said WFIRM Director Anthony Atala, MD, and a co-author of the paper. “A mobile bioprinter that can provide on-site management of extensive wounds could help to accelerate the delivery of care and decrease costs for patients.”

The process begins with isolating healthy skin cells from a small biopsy of healthy tissue. The cells are mixed into a hydrogel and then some sci-fi wizardry happens before the machine begins to form skin on the wound. Translation: “Integrated imaging technology involving a device that scans the wound, feeds the data into the software to tell the print heads which cells to deliver exactly where in the wound layer by layer. The bioprinter deposits the cells directly into the wound, replicating the layered skin structure, and accelerating the formation of normal skin structure and function.”

“If you deliver the patient’s own cells, they do actively contribute to wound healing by organizing up front to start the healing process much faster,” says James Yoo, MD, PhD, who led the research team and co-authored the paper with lead author, Sean Murphy, PhD,. “While there are other types of wound healing products available to treat wounds and help them close, those products do not actually contribute directly to the creation of skin.”

The researchers were able to show that the system worked by printing skin directly onto pre-clinical models. The next step, they say, is to conduct a clinical trial in humans.

To learn more, see the research published in Nature’s Scientific Reports journal.

Scientists have created a mobile bioprinter that when filled with a patient's cells, prints skin directly into a wound.