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Scientists experiment with printer technology to treat burn victims

December 02, 2013

BY: Holly Johnson

Inspired by an inkjet printer, scientists at Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine have been making steady progress on an innovative solution for burn victims. The project, which is still in its preclinical phase, uses a device similar to an inkjet printer to spray skin cells directly onto burn victims, thus allowing them to heal quickly while regenerating their own additional skin cells.

According to CNN, researchers developed the specialized printer by modifying a store-bought printer to include a three-dimensional "elevator" that allows the application of multiple layers of fresh skin in one general area.

"We literally print the cells directly onto the wound," student Kyle Binder, who helped design the device, told Reuters. "We can put specific cells where they need to go."

The process starts with a small section of skin, about half the size of a postage stamp, being taken from the patient. Scientists then separate cells from the skin sample and allow them to duplicate on their own. The cells are added to the printing device and used in the place of a typical skin graft. Once applied, the new cells become a part of the patient, allowing for faster healing and the formation of new skin.

The printing of skin cells could ultimately lead to faster skin regeneration and quicker healing times for burn victims of all types. According to Wake Forest's website, printed skin cells may be much more practical than skin grafts. This is because, in many cases, burn victims don't have enough unburned skin available to make meaningful grafts.

Because of the disproportionate number of active soldiers who suffer from burn wounds, many believe that this technology is perfect for use on the battlefield. But, not so fast. As Singularity Hub points out, wounded soldiers may not have enough time for the initial cell growth and expansion to take place. As a result, use of this device in a war zone would likely take donor skin cells that were available at a moment's notice.

However, despite the potential challenges, the project still looks promising. Reportedly, researchers at the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine (AFIRM), working with Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM), proved that the device was successful at printing skin on wounded mice. Researchers have also been at work designing a model that can fit over a standard hospital bed.

But first, the device must undergo stringent regulatory steps in order to become approved for the treatment of human beings. Once that approval takes place, those involved in the project believe that the device could benefit many.

"We're not making anything military-unique," said Terry Irgens, a program director at the U.S Army Medical Materiel Development Activity to CNN. "We hope it will benefit both soldier and civilian," he said.

For now, scientists continue to modify and improve the device in order to make it compatible with the treatment of human beings. And, once an adequate number of experiments have been completed on mice, scientists hope to use the strategy to heal wounds on pigs.

Regardless, science is once again proving that the human body's ability to heal itself is simply amazing, and that technology can, indeed, assist in that endeavor.

"You have to give a lot of credit to the cells. When you put them into the wound, they know what to do," said Binder.

Sources

Business Insider, "Printed Skin Cells Will Change How We Treat Burns Forever," August 3, 2012, Ashley Lutz, http://www.businessinsider.com/printed-skin-cells-will-change-how-we-treat-burns-forever-2012-7

CNN Tech, "Researchers Aim to Print Human Skin," February 19, 2011, Dana Rosenblatt, http://www.cnn.com/2011/TECH/innovation/02/19/bioprinting.wounded.soldiers/index.html

Reuters, "Inkjet-like device 'prints' cells right over burns," April 8, 2010, Maggie Fox, http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/04/08/us-wounds-printer-idUSTRE63657520100408

Singularity Hub, "Skin-Printer Looks Promising, Already Successful with Mice," April 13, 2010, Aaron Saenz, http://singularityhub.com/2010/04/13/skin-printer-looks-promising-already-successful-with-mice-video/

Wake Forest School of Medicine, "Printing Skin Cells on Burn Wounds," 2013, http://www.wakehealth.edu/Research/WFIRM/Research/Military-Applications/Printing-Skin-Cells-On-Burn-Wounds.htm