Handheld, paint roller-like device pastes new skin on severe burns

5 Feb 2020

The new skin printer prototype. Image: Daria Perevezentsev/U of T Engineering

A new 3D printer that works like a paint roller can deposit large sheets of skin over severe burns, accelerated by ‘bio ink’.

A device that seems straight out of science fiction has been developed by researchers from University of Toronto Engineering and Sunnybrook Hospital in Canada. Offering help to severe burn victims, they have created a 3D printer that works like a paint roller, applying large deposits of skin at a time.

Writing in the journal Biofabrication, the researchers said that its integrated ‘bio ink’ can accelerate the healing process. This bio ink is made from mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs) – stem cells that differentiate into specialised cell types depending on their environment. In this case, the MSC promotes skin regeneration and reduces scarring.

Existing treatments for burns include autologous skin grafting, which takes healthy skin from other parts of the body and places it onto the wound. However, this treatment becomes immensely challenging with large, full-body burns.

Full-thickness burns are characterised by the destruction of both the outermost and innermost layers of the skin. The first prototype for the device was developed in 2018 and was considered one of the first of its kind to form tissue in situ. At the time, it took just two minutes or less to print skin.

‘A game changer in saving lives’

“Previously, we proved that we could deposit cells onto a burn, but there wasn’t any proof that there were any wound-healing benefits – now we’ve demonstrated that,” said Prof Axel Guenther, who oversaw the project led by PhD candidate Richard Cheng.

Since 2018, the device has gone through 10 redesigns as the researchers work towards a device that could be used by surgeons in an operating room. The current prototype includes a single-use microfluidic printhead for sterilisation, and a soft wheel that follows the track of the printhead, allowing for better control for wider wounds.

Cheng and the rest of the researchers said they are now focused on reducing the amount of scarring, on top of helping with wound healing.

Dr Marc Jeschke, director of the Ross Tilley Burn Centre at Sunnybrook, which collaborated on the research, said the printer could be seen in a clinical setting in the next five years.

“Once it’s used in an operating room, I think this printer will be a game changer in saving lives. With a device like this, it could change the entirety of how we practice burn and trauma care.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic