3D bioprinting started as a far-off prospect greeted with skepticism – 3D printed human organs? Come on. It’s progressed to the point, though, that while it still boggles minds, few people doubt that it’s a real thing that’s happening right now. It’s hard to be skeptical when scientists are implanting working 3D printed blood vessels into monkeys, or 3D printed thyroids into mice, or any of the other numerous examples of the once-impossible.
A major area of study right now is 3D printed skin. Several companies and institutions have been in the news recently for their development of 3D printed human skin; just one week ago, we looked at the work that the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine is doing with a new technology involving printing new skin cells directly onto wounds. Now the latest news to come onto our radar is a collaboration between several Spanish organizations to prototype a new 3D printer capable of printing functional human skin.
We’ve recently been in touch with the BioDan Group, a bioengineering startup focused on regenerative medicine, particularly for the skin. Their research has resulted in a wide range of applications from cosmetic testing to the treatment of burns and ulcers, and lately they’ve teamed up with the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M), the Research Centre for Energy, Environment and Technology (CIEMAT), and the Hospital General Universitario Gregorio Marañón to create a prototype for a 3D printer that can produce completely functional human skin.
The skin produced by the printer is adequate for transplantation to patients, as well as for cosmetic, chemical and pharmaceutical testing. While, as stated above, many organizations have been working on the technology to 3D print skin, this is a major milestone, as the skin produced by the research group’s 3D printer is one of the first living bioprinted organs to be introduced to the marketplace.
The bioprinted skin replicates the layered structural of natural skin, with the epidermis and stratum corneum acting as the outermost, protective layer over the thicker dermis. The deepest layer is composed of fibroblasts, which produce collagen for elasticity and strength. If you think about it, such layered construction seems to lend itself perfectly to technology like 3D printing, though of course it’s not nearly as simple as depositing layers of uniform polymers or powders.
“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,” says Juan Francisco del Cañizo of the Hospital General Universitario Gregorio Marañón and the Universidad Complutense de Madrid.
The bioinks used by the 3D printer are patented by CIEMAT and licensed by the BioDan Group. There are actually two different processes used to produce the skin tissue. Allogenic skin, which is produced in large quantities for industrial testing purposes, is created from an existing stock of cells, while autologous skin, created for therapeutic use, is printed on a customized, case-by-case basis using the cells of individual patients. The team is also researching ways to print other human tissue.
“The 3D bioprinting technology allow us to go a step further in the generation of tissues and organs as compared to manual methods,” José Luis Jorcano, Director of the Division of Epithelial Biomedicine at CIEMAT and Biomedical Engineering Professor at UC3M, told 3DPrint.com. “In the case of skin, we had already developed manual techniques to produce large surfaces of functional skin that we have successfully applied to patients. But these techniques only allow us to produce homogeneous structures. However, the skin has also gradients of molecules and discontinuous structures like hairs and glands. Now, with the help of bioprinters we can start testing the generating of a more complex skin containing these gradients and structures.”
At the moment, the technology is in the process of being approved by several European regulatory agencies to ensure that the 3D printed skin is suitable for use in transplants on burn victims and others with skin injuries or diseases. It will also save animals from being used for cosmetic, chemical and pharmaceutical testing purposes.
“We are printing living skin as a full living human organ,” BioDan Group CEO Alfredo Brisac told 3DPrint.com. “With both dermis and epidermis, capable to create its own human collagen. This is a rupturing technology opening a new door to create living organs in the future. Organs derived from livings cells without the need of any genetic manipulation.”
Among those working on this project for the last year — it has been ongoing for three years now — is UC3M biomedical engineer Fátima Pérez Sastre, who has told 3DPrint.com about her work with BioDan. Her hands-on work with this project has helped to propel it to its current level, and she notes as well that the project is seeking additional funding to continue its progress.
The research has been documented in a study entitled 3D bioprinting of functional human skin: production and in vivo analysis, which you can access here. You can also take a look at the video below (in Spanish, with English subtitles) to learn more about the research in the scientists’ own words:
Discuss in the 3D Bioprinter forum at 3DPB.com.