After years of research, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has finally developed a way to 3D print living skin, complete with blood vessels. This study was made to offset the risks of skin grafting, which can be a highly invasive and risky surgical procedure.
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“Right now, whatever is available as a clinical product is more like a fancy Band-Aid,” says Pankaj Karande, the lead researcher and associate professor of the chemical and biological engineering department at the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies.
“It provides some accelerated wound healing, but eventually it just falls off; it never really integrates with the host cells.”
Skin grafting is the act of using an existing patch of skin from one area of the body to cover another area that needs it. This is sometimes done as part of elective plastic surgery procedures, but it’s more often used for the treatment of third-degree burns.
If successful, the patched part of the skin should look better than it was before the procedure.
However, a study on grafting from NCBI shows how there’s always the risk of the body rejecting grafted tissue. During the surgery, the immune system may recognize the graft as a foreign component.
As a result, it makes an effort to destroy it—just like it would attempt to push out other foreign objects. A big part of why the immune system rejects it is the graft’s lack of a vascular structure, which blood connection is a major part of.
By 3D printing “actual” skin with blood vessels and using that as a graft, Karande explains how the cells between the skin and the 3D graft will start communicating and eventually form “a biologically relevant vascular structure within the span of a few weeks.”
This will make it easier for the immune system to accept the graft, causing fewer complications.
Although using 3D printing to create skin is indeed groundbreaking, the same technology is already being used in other industries for years now. In cosmetics, Harvard MBA graduate Grace Choi demonstrated how a 3D printer could be used to print make-up using FDA-approved ink.
On the other hand, Russia has even more ambitious plans with 3D printing. Its space program plans to use the technology to create a full-sized base on the moon by 2040.
Artificial skin is not 3D printing’s first breakthrough in biology either. An article on 3D printing from HP discusses how technology is commonly used to treat complex biological structures (like damaged organs) by promoting tissue growth.
This is done by printing 3D cell copies using isomalt—a type of sugar that’s less prone to burning or crystallization. If that sounds impressive, you'll be surprised to know that these are just a few of the many uses of 3D printing.
As 3D printing continues to innovate, the possibilities of the technology expand as well. In 2018, a blog post from the Medical Device Network informs how the industry had a huge focus on bone regeneration.
They succeeded with the use of titanium, a mesh substructure that has been shown to have excellent osteoconductive properties.
Last year, 3D cell printing was also becoming more popular.
A little forward into the future and we may be seeing fully functional 3D organs. After all, organs start with functioning capillary structures (a network of blood vessels), which the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has since proven is possible with 3D printers.
At this point, it's exciting to see what's next in 3D printing. And we can only hope to see it solve more of mankind’s problems and improve lives around the world.