In 2016, researchers at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM) announced that they had successfully transplanted functional 3D printed tissue into animals. They’ve now succeeded in developing an innovative method of creating functional 3D printed skin, something that could have great implications for the medical treatment of burns and other serious skin conditions.
The skin is the human body’s largest organ and traditional treatments for sustained burns involve covering them with healthy skin from another part of the body. But in the cases of more severe and extensive burn injuries, there often isn’t enough healthy skin to harvest. The researchers at WFIRM thought, why not just print some?
Using a steel machine called 'ITOP', or Integrated Tissue and Organ Printing System, WFIRM scientists – led by Dr Anthony Atala – designed, built and tested a printing method that would print skin cells directly onto burn wounds. Once a scanner determines wound size and depth, this data effectively guides the printer as it applies layers of the correct cells to cover the wound.
One of the great advantages of WFIRM ‘s method is that it utilises cells from the body of the wounded individual – its “ink” is actually just different kinds of skin cells. This eliminates any possibility of rejection from the body of the patient, allowing 3D printing-based operations to continue without any boundaries.
“We take a very small piece of their tissue,” Dr Atala explains. “We then start to expand those cells outside of the body. We use those cells to create new tissues and organs that we can then put back into the body.”
WFIRM’s skin printing method has undergone clinical trials on animals and is waiting on FDA approval to begin human trials.