Wake Forest University’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine is where some of the best 3D bioprinting news springs forth. The North Carolina-based institute has developed 3D printed cartilage and is even 3D printing various organ tissues to test vaccines. Now, it seems that Wake Forest is also in the business of 3D printing skin for the US Army.
Along with the Army’s other projects to 3D print hearts, blood vessels, and the like, the latest issue of the military’s own publication Army Technology (PDF), explains that 3D printed skin is almost ready for clinical trials. Wake Forest has already developed and tested a specialty 3D printer for printing skin cells onto burn wounds. After a scanner measures the size and depth of a wound, this data is sent to the printer’s software, which uses the depth information to determine which types of skin cells to use in the printing process, as different cell types are located at different depths. The printer then creates a small patch to cover the burn. And, because of the skin’s natural healing abilities, a piece of skin only 1/10th the size of the wound is necessary to grow over the burn.
According to Army Technology, burns account for 30% of the injuries suffered by soldiers on the battlefield. Dr. Michael Romanko, a doctor currently working with the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine (AFIRM), explains, “There was an increasing need to deliver therapies for wounded warriors. We saw a spike in the severity of the trauma that these soldiers were receiving. As we increased the quality of battle armor, the injuries they were surviving were that much more debilitating.” He adds, “The scars that soldiers develop as a result of burns constrict movement and disfigure them permanently. The initiative to restore high-quality skin that is elastic and complete with sweat glands, appropriate pigmentation and hair follicles is incredibly important… Everyone has a different type of injury, and not everyone’s skin injury looks the same. Skin bioprinting would provide a scalable form of personalized medicine.”
AFIRM, which is made up of a network of universities, military labs, and researchers, is also working on full-scale organ printing. And, though the 3D printed skin is almost ready for trials, the organs are a bit further off. Director of the US Army Research Laboratory tells the magazine, “In the future, through additive manufacturing, we may be able to produce a heart and do transplants. Many of the injuries soldiers receive in the field are not traditional. A lot of the medical community sees this as a new approach to medicine.”
While the technology is currently geared towards soldiers, Romanko hopes that it will one day see its way off the battlefield to ordinary civilians, “This has very widespread use, not only to the military audience, but also to the civilian population. We need a larger commercialization audience in order to be a self-sustaining technology.” Of course, first, we’ll have to see how the 3D printed skin holds up in the military’s own clinical trials before knowing just how viable it is.