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3D-printed skin could be a great step forward in the treatment of burns and wounds, especially for patients with extensive skin damage. But how does this mind-blowing tech work? We take look a closer look.
Conventional printers print onto flat surfaces (in 2D), while 3D printers use a process called ‘additive manufacturing’ to print objects layer by layer. Working from a digital blueprint, they can print different materials such as plastics, metals, ceramics and even chocolate.
Bioprinters are like regular 3D printers, except they print with biomaterials like cells to create organic structures such as skin, blood vessels and internal organs. The biomaterials are called ‘bio-ink’ and, depending on their purpose, cells can be grown from a patient’s cells or from a stock of cells.
Just like conventional 3D printing, the organic object is built up layer by layer and often includes the printing of a scaffold – or support – for the cells to grow on to ensure the object is the right shape.
Skin is particularly suitable for bioprinting due to its flat, multi-layered structure. Bioprinted skin can be used for grafts to repair burns and ulcers, as well as for testing chemicals, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.
Scientists in Spain recently announced a prototype for a bioprinter that can create functional human skin ready for transplantation or for industrial uses such as testing. The process follows the natural structure of the skin by printing the outer layer – which includes the corneum made of dead skin cells, and keratinocytes, which produce keratin – followed by the deeper layer of cells called fibroblasts, which produce collagen.
Researchers are developing a bioprinter for military use that can print skin directly onto a burn or wound
Meanwhile, researchers in North Carolina are developing a bioprinter for military use that can print skin directly onto a burn or wound. According to Wake Forest School of Medicine: “The 'ink' is actually different kinds of skin cells. A scanner is used to determine wound size and depth. Different kinds of skin cells are found at different depths. This data guides the printer as it applies layers of the correct type of cells to cover the wound.” While this technology is still in development, researchers expect it will be ready to use in the field in the next few years.
The French cosmetics company L'Oréal has been growing more than 100,000 skin patches a year in petri dishes, using tissue donated by plastic surgery patients across ethnicities and age groups. It sees its partnership with the medical lab and research company, Organovo, as a way of testing product safety and performance without using animals, as well as opening up other possibilities.
Australia is set to become a world leader in the field of bioprinting, with the Australian Government last year investing $3.7 million to establish the ARC Training Centre in Additive Biomanufacturing.
"3D printing has captured the imagination of clinicians, cell biologists, materials scientists and engineers. Working together, real practical advances are being made," says the Director of the Centre, Professor Gordon Wallace.
"3D bioprinting enables fundamental explorations into the world of cell biology that we could only dream of five years ago."
If you want to read more about 3D printing check out Print your own body: The future of 3D prosthetics.