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Skin burns are a common injury and one of the most difficult to treat. The body's primary defense against external microbes is the skin. When burns are extensive, the skin barrier is severely compromised and leaves the body open to infection. Automobile and plane crashes, burning buildings, and battlefield situations commonly produce extensive burns.
Skin graphs are often used to treat burns. However they are difficult to acquire when a lot of skin has been burned since the patient often can't afford to lose any more skin. Therefore the need for artificial skin is acute.
There have been a number of breakthroughs in the 3D bioprinting of skin. Researchers at the University Of Liverpool are producing artificial skin that matches the look and color of an individual's natural skin. This is no easy feat because the skin has a complex texture and exhibits a multitude of colors when examined closely. Such research is important because victims with extensive burns are disfigured by the mismatch between the new skin and their normal skin. Whether the new skin is scar tissue or transplant tissue the disfigurement is still present.
The researchers have developed 3D imaging techniques and skin modeling methods that match the appearance of natural skin. They are building up a database of hundreds of skin types that can be used to find a close match for a person in need.
Scientists at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine have developed a 3D printer that prints skin cells onto a burn wound. What makes this development unique is that different types of skin cells are deposited at different depths within the burn. Cells making up the inner layers of skin are different from those of the outer layers. Therefore the printer matches the cell type with that of the particular layer.
Researchers at the Leiden University in the Netherlands are combining stem cell technology with 3D printing to produce a technique they call SkinPrint. Cell samples taken from the patient are transformed into stem cells. These stem cells become the "ink" used by the 3D printer which builds up a patch of skin. The cells grow and differentiate to become all the layers of the skin. Afterwards, the skin is transplanted onto the patient.
The above examples are but three of many research projects directed at the 3D bioprinting of artificial skin. Viable technology in this area is needed for the treatment of burn injuries as well as skin diseases. Because skin burn injuries are so common, 3D printing opportunities in this field will continue for many years to come.