Researchers at the University of Toronto and Sunnybrook Hospital have developed a portable machine that they hope will someday change how burns and other wounds are treated.
The handheld machine, which looks something like a duct tape dispenser, is used to print skin. It deposits a strip of gel, containing skin cells, that can be applied directly on top of a wound. It forms tissue and deposits it in two minutes or less.
The material mimics the layers in human skin, said Axel Guenther, a faculty member in the department of mechanical and industrial engineering at the University of Toronto.
“The hope is that providing the right cells in the right place will accelerate wound healing,” he said.
His team has collaborated with Sunnybrook Hospital, and the researchers hope that this technology will be able to improve how burns are treated.
Today, in a patient with burns over a large percentage of their body, the untouched skin is harvested to be placed on top of the burn wounds, said Dr. Marc Jeschke, director of Sunnybrook’s Ross Tilley Burn Centre.
But if a person has burns on 70 per cent of their body, there simply isn’t enough healthy skin to patch them up. So, the same areas have to be harvested again and again, meaning open wounds and very long hospital stays while they heal.
“That means it’s an ordeal, it’s painful. You take the same skin over and over, you have scarring there. Patients have a delayed wound healing and you may die because your wounds don’t close,” he said.
Their vision, he said, is to use the patient’s own skin cells to grow more in a lab, then print it directly onto the wound. This could potentially cut healing time from months to weeks. They even hope that scarring might be less obvious, since the original material came from the person’s own skin. They don’t know yet whether this will be the case, though they hope to test it out.
There are currently some other engineered tissues on the market, said Guenther, but they’re expensive and take a long time to prepare. “So what we’re hoping is that this technology will make these tissue-engineered technologies much more accessible to patients.”
So far, the product has not been tested on humans, though the researchers have had successful trials on mice and pigs, mostly to work out the engineering details. They have been working on the printer for about five years and Jeschke anticipates it will be another five to 10 years before they’re able to try it on people. The team is excited about the device though.
“If this works, it will revolutionize the way we care for burns, which we haven’t done for 30, 40 years. It will be a complete game-changer.”