Printing skin cells with inkjet technology

In 2005, we wrote about a fascinating new technology being developed at that time at the University of Manchester in England, where scientists were in the process of developing a technique through which inkjet nozzles would spray live human cells onto a patient.

Ideally, this would speed up the healing process because doctors could seed a patient with replacement tissue that would grow to the size and shape required. This could be used to treat burn victims or patients who have suffered severe disfigurements. The seed cells could also be grown from a previously harvested sample from the patient, thereby reducing the chances of donor rejection.

printing skin cells

Using the same principle as an inkjet printer, experts are able to take skin cells from a patient’s body, multiply them, and then print out a tailor-made strip of skin, ready to sew onto the body. The wound’s dimensions are entered into the printer to ensure a perfect fit. The researchers showed that human cells printed into wells containing nutrients could multiply, spread out and form attachments to the surface during a six-day incubation period.

The printer, which took up an area equivalent to three filing cabinets, was being developed at that time in order to replace traditional skin and bone grafts. Scientists at the university’s School of Materials had already successfully created skin and they believed that they would soon be able to create bone and cartilage.

The group was working with Xaar, a British inkjet head manufacturer, to refine the equipment for human cell delivery. The cells, delivered in droplets of fluid, fly at about one-foot per second and can accelerate at about 1,000 G-forces. Doctors would take cells from a patient’s body, multiply them and suspend them in a nutrient-rich liquid similar to ink. A technician would enter measurements of a patient’s wound into a computer and feed the suspended cells into the printer.

The beauty of this technology is that it would remove rejection problems that are usually associated with conventional skin grafts, yet the technology at that time was still five to ten years away from potential implementation.

Now five years since the initial experiments took place, researchers at a U.S. Army research lab at Wake Forest University in North Carolina have continued developing the technique that may one day help soldiers and other individuals recover from burn scars. The investigators have found that by modifying a conventional inkjet printer and growing skin cells taken from a patient’s body, they have been able to actually print new skin. In lieu of ink, the scientists load the patient’s skin cells into a cartridge, and a computer uses a three dimensional map of the burn scar or wound to guide the printer, the National Defense Education Program reports.

Kyle Binder, a biomedical scientist at the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest, explains, “The bio-printer drops each type of cell precisely where it needs to go.” He adds, “The wound gets filled in and then those cells will become new skin.”

Once perfected, this new technique will join other cutting-edge scar treatment methods, such as silicone gel sheeting, for use in the biomedical world.