The healthcare sector is often at the forefront of technology. If a technological advancement can be used to help the sick or ailing, it will. While 3D printing has now been around for a few years, new applications are continually being developed.
One of the most exciting applications being developed is using real skin as a base to print synthetic skin.
Scientists working at Spain’s Universidad Carlos III de Madrid produced synthetic human skin using a 3D printer. The synthetic skin uses the still-emerging healthcare trend of printing with bioinks, which contain living cells, that replicate the layers of real skin. The entire process is called bioprinting.
The major factor bioprinting needs to fight is deterioration, and choosing the right biological components to print with is key.
“Knowing how to mix the biological components, in what conditions to work with them so that the cells don’t deteriorate, and how to correctly deposit the product is critical to the system,” researcher Juan Francisco del Cañizo said.
The first step is to create an epidermis, the outermost layer of skin, with a stratum corneum. This is followed by a synthetic dermis, and then a layer of fibroblasts. The fibroblasts are highly important to the process, as they produce collagen, which makes skin strong and elastic. The final product is similar to a skin graft. It’s not far from hydrogels, used in 2015, but is more effective.
Even more exciting is the prospect of using a patient’s own cells as a template for the synthetic skin. This would customize the end product to the patient, as it would be similar to cloning their skin. Instead of surgery, taking skin from another part of their body, a burn victim’s skin can be replaced with printed, synthetic skin. This process could eliminate the need for grafts.
It took the Spanish researchers a half-hour to produce 100 centimeters of synthetic skin, but that was in early 2017. By mid-2018, researchers at the University of Toronto had taken bioprinting a step further, creating a portable 3D printer that creates synthetic skin. The process only takes about 2 minutes and can print directly onto the patient.
In late 2018, researchers from University of Minnesota, Virginia Tech, University of Maryland, Princeton University, and Johns Hopkins University collaborated and were able to print complex nerves in rats. The synthetic nerves were created with a combination of bioinks and silicone. About 4 months later, one of the rats, who had previously been unable to walk, had improved function.
Finally, an application that does not involve putting the synthetic skin on the patient is pharmaceutical testing. Again using the patient’s own skin as a template, drugs could be tested on the synthetic skin. As it’s still essentially the patient’s skin, it will have the same reactions to the drugs without putting the patient at risk.
Most people have a few mental images for prosthetics. A pirate’s peg leg, the running blade used in sports, or a hook for a hand. While hand-shaped prosthetics that use sensors and motors to mimic the movement of a real hand exist, they are often expensive. Thanks to 3D printing, that is changing.
Using a 3D printer to produce a prosthetic means using quality materials at lowered expense. A patient could download a design themselves, buy a 3D printer, and print their own prosthetic for just the cost of the material. To that end, the e-NABLE community provides free, open-source designs for prosthetic hands, as well as places to print the hands if the patient lacks a 3D printer.
The important part of printing prosthetics is reducing cost. A functioning hand with a hook at the end costs about $10,000 without health insurance. For an advanced prosthetic, like a myoelectric arm, costs range from $20,000 to $100,000. A quality 3D printer can be bought for about $300, and then the patient just needs to provide materials.
Another advantage is being able to tweak designs, customizing the prosthesis to the patient. Measurements can easily be changed, molding the final product to the patient, providing the perfect fit. While printing will likely take a few days, it’s better than spending tens of thousands of dollars.
X-rays and 3D imaging have greatly improved the diagnostic capabilities of doctors. The latest technological leap forward helps patients understand what is happening to them while letting doctors plan ahead. 3D models of the patient’s organ, in this case a liver, are printed, including blood vessels or abnormal masses. If there are blood vessels close to the surface, where there is risk of an accidental knick, the doctor can see this and have a plan in case something goes wrong.
The doctor can see the organ from all angles, form a plan, and explain it to the patient while the patient holds the model in their hands. It provides an extra sense, touch, and allows the perfect visual, rather than just a 2D representation.
Looking to the future, combining the models and skin printing could mean printing out entire new organs. Livers, kidneys, hearts, and more could all be printing, revolutionizing the transplant process and solving the problem of long wait times of transplant lists.
The ability to print synthetic skin, customized prosthetics, and models of a patient’s organs are all making healthcare better for both doctors and patients. Skin grafts may soon be obsolete, while prosthetic cost is dropping. Doctors can form a plan while clearly showing and explaining problems. In the future, it’s even possible that transplant organs will be simply printed. As 3D printing becomes more ubiquitous, more and more patients will benefit.
About the author
Brooke Faulkner is a mom and writer in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. She loves researching the current state of medicine and sharing her findings with other families. You can find more of her writing on twitter or at contently.