According to Pankaj Karande, Associate Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and member of the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies (CBIS) of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), in Troy, New York, right now, our technology enables us to pull simple types of cells together and 3D bioprint them into structures that resemble human skin. However, most of these skin grafts, made available commercially at certain clinics, function more like a “fancy band-aid”.

While these skin grafts assist in speeding up the process of healing in patients, they will eventually slough off because they do not come with their own independent and operational vascular systems that facilitate their interactions with the host cells. The vascular systems will not only bring nutrients to the skin grafts but also remove metabolites. As such, Karande decided to head a research project, targeting at the production of 3D bioprinting living skin that is complete with blood vessels.

Combining more types of cells

In one of his previous papers, Karande demonstrated the creation of “bio-inks” made from two types of living human cells and print them into a skin-like structure. In his most recent project, working together with researchers from the Yale School of Medicine, they showed if adding vital elements such as human endothelial cells found inside of blood vessels, human pericyte cells wrapping around the endothelial cells, animal collagen, and other structural components found within a skin graft, would allow cells to begin communicating and cultivating vascular constructs.

The study and its findings were published in Tissue Engineering Part A at the turn of this month. By combining more types of cells, Karande and his research team realized they were able to see a very nice, functional vasculature being formed when they printed the tissue in the lab. They then graft the tissues on animal wounds and observe there were indeed interactions between the printed blood vessels and the host cells.

Making it usable at clinical level

Karande said the research team plans to incorporate CRISPR technology to edit donor cells, so that the printed blood vessels can be accepted by a human patient, making the skin graft usable at a clinical level. “We are still not at that step but we are one step closer”, Karande commented.

Deepak Vashishth, Director of CBIS said, “this significant development highlights the vast potential of 3D printing in precision medicine, where solutions can be tailored to specific situations and eventually to individuals”. Karande and his research team plan to do more work to address the challenges associated with burn patients, including those who lost their nerves and vascular endings.

The research team also believes the skin grafts will be useful for patients with more discrete medical conditions like diabetes and pressure ulcers. “For those patients, these would be perfect because ulcers usually appear at distinct locations on the body and can be addressed with smaller pieces of skin. Wound healing typically takes longer in diabetic patients and this could also help to accelerate that process,” Karande added.

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Hazel Tang

A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.