While the advent of 3D printers is commonly thought of as a revolution for manufacturing, it could have huge benefits for medicine as well. To help patch up large wounds that might normally require a skin graft, researchers at Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM) have developed a new bioprinter that can print dual layers of a patient’s own skin directly into a wound.
The idea of 3D printing skin has been in development for a few years. In 2014, a prototype machine was unveiled that could print large sheets of human skin that could then be cut to size and grafted onto a patient. The tech evolved over the years into more detailed machines and eventually a handheld device that works like a tape dispenser for skin.
The new machine looks like a cross between those last two. It’s much larger than the handheld device, but it’s still relatively portable in a hospital setting. The machine can be wheeled to a bedside, and a patient lies underneath the printer nozzle while it goes to work.
Like earlier devices, the new printer uses an “ink” made up of a patient’s own cells, to minimize the risk of rejection. First a small biopsy of healthy skin is taken, and from that two types of skin cells can be isolated: fibroblasts, the cells that help build the structure to heal wounds, and keratinocytes, which are the main cells found in the outermost layer of skin.