Here’s some news Wade Wilson would probably get excited about: Researchers have just announced that they are now able to 3D print “living skin” grafts that contain functional blood vessels. And while the technology is, by no means, ready for widespread use amongst people, preliminary tests show that there’s a good chance these printed, living tissues will eventually work for everything from healing burn damage to covering up ulcers.
The innovative skin printing technology, described in a recently published paper in the journal Tissue Engineering Part A, is being developed by researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, and is being led by Pankaj Karande, an associate professor of chemical and biological engineering at the private research university. In the video above, Karande discusses the groundbreaking skin-printing technique, noting that most of the skin grafts that are currently available don’t have vasculature (blood vessels). This is where his team’s invention enters the picture.
Because most skin grafts don’t contain working blood vessels, Karande notes that they aren’t very effective in the long term. He says in the explainer video above that one of the challenges with grafts that are currently commercially available is that “when you put on the graft it eventually sloughs off.” He’s quoted in the school’s press release for the breakthrough as saying that these types of grafts are “more like a fancy Band-Aid.”
But thanks to their containing live, working blood vessels, Karande and his team’s grafts can, in so many words, merge with their host recipient. This is possible because the blood vessels allow the host’s circulatory system to feed the graft with blood, which helps to deliver nutrients to the graft as well as remove metabolites. This connection between host blood vessels and graft blood vessels is critical for keeping the graft alive and healthy, as the graft has no other way to obtain what it needs to grow.
The skin graft-printing machine in action.
When Karande’s team handed off their printed graft samples containing active blood vessels to another research team at Yale, the grafts merged with immunodeficient mice, standing as a proof-of-concept that 3D printed blood vessels can merge with naturally made ones.
Perhaps what’s most profound about experiments like this is that they’re apparently leading to the possibility to architect biological systems on the scale of proteins and cells. In fact, Karande says that his team’s research could lead to the ability to place cells in tissues “exactly where they’d appear in [their] natural context.” Meaning that 3D printing with biological materials could eventually be as precise as 3D printing with standard materials like plastics or nylon.
What do you think of these 3D printed skin grafts containing functional blood vessels? And what do you think this 3D printing biotech will be capable of in a decade? Let us know in the comments!
Images: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute