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3D Printed Skin Grafts Revolutionise Burn Treatment

Burn injuries can be devastating. In the case of armed forces personnel, burns account for 30% of the injuries sustained by soldiers in the battlefield. At the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine located at Wake Forest University’s Military Research Centre, scientists are working on a remarkable new technique for treating burns using specially adapted 3D print technology.

Researchers have taken a standard inkjet printer and replaced the ink cartridge with one containing human skin cells. The printer then simply prints new skin cells onto the burn wound site. Burn sites are particularly susceptible to infection and in the case of widespread and serious injuries can leave the body open to potentially fatal invasion by bacteria. The ability to quickly and effectively repair burn damage would drastically reduce the risk of infection and give the victim a much better chance of survival and full recovery. The traditional treatment for burns often entails using skin grafted from another area on the patient’s body. This is not only painful but can also be impractical if the victim’s burns are very extensive.

The science is not just intended to benefit armed forces personnel. It’s hoped that firefighters, police officers and other professionals who work in dangerous environments where burns are a danger could benefit from the research.

The technique is not as as simple as it first sounds and has proved challenging for the scientists. Burns can affect more than just one layer of the skin and can penetrate to different depths over the burn site damaging both the upper layer of the skin (epidermis) and lower layer (dermis). The skin cells in these areas are different. Scientists take healthy skin cells from each layer and then grow them in a laboratory. When sufficient new cells have been grown, they’re loaded into an empty printer cartridge. A track mounted camera then scans the patient’s burn and uses a laser to create a 3D map of the wound. A computer then instructs the printer on where to begin printing and what type of cells to use. The wound is then gradually filled in and the new cells begin to grow and form new skin.

A regular inkjet printer cartridge is filled with ink. When the computer instructs the printer to begin printing, a copper wire on the cartridge is heated up and this causes a single, minute drop of ink to be deposited onto the paper below. The cells contained in the bioprinter cartridge are the same size as droplets of ink and this is why scientists are able to use a cleaned and sterilised recycled inkjet cartridge.

Tests have been carried out on mice and thus far the results are very encouraging. The Dutch company, SkinPrint, is also working with 3D print technology researching burn treatment. Their method does not involve printing onto the actual wound site itself, but is attempting to develop a method of creating universal transplantable skin grafts. They are at an early stage in their research at the moment, but results so far are positive. It is hoped that in the future skin graft banks will be possible which will operate in the same way as blood banks do today and that many more lives will be saved, thanks to 3D printing.

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Alison Page

About Alison Page

Alison is a small business owner, freelance writer, author and dressage judge. She has degrees in Equine Science and Business Studies. Read her full story at

Alison Page

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