Handheld skin printer tackles major burns

Scientists in Canada have developed a handheld device for printing skin that could be used to speed up healing for wounds and burns.

(Credit: Daria Perevezentsev / U of T Engineering)

Working in a similar way to a paint roller, the device can deposit a layer of bio-ink over large areas of the body, and builds on a prototype first unveiled in 2018. The latest iteration includes a single-use microfluidic printhead to ensure sterilisation and a soft wheel that follows the track of the printhead, allowing for better control for wider wounds.

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The bio-ink is composed of mesenchymal stroma cells (MSCs) that differentiate into specialised cell types depending on their environment. In the presence of a wound or burn, MSCs promote skin regeneration and minimise the formation of scar tissue. The work, published in the journal Biofabrication, was carried out by researchers from the University of Toronto Engineering and Sunnybrook Hospital.

“Previously, we proved that we could deposit cells onto a burn, but there wasn’t any proof that there were any wound-healing benefits – now we’ve demonstrated that,” said Toronto University’s Professor Axel Guenther.

Major burns are commonly treated with autologous skin grafting, where healthy skin is transplanted from other parts of the body onto the wound. But where patients have large, full-body burns, grafts on their own are not always sufficient. Full-thickness burns involve the destruction of both the outermost and innermost layers of the skin, and these burns often cover a significant portion of the body, meaning healthy skin for grafting can be in short supply.

“With big burns, you don’t have sufficient healthy skin available, which could lead to patient deaths,” said Dr Marc Jeschke, director of the Ross Tilley Burn Centre at Sunnybrook Hospital.

According to Jeschke, the handheld skin printer could make it to a clinical setting within the next five years.

“Once it’s used in an operating room, I think this printer will be a game-changer in saving lives,” he said. “With a device like this, it could change the entirety of how we practice burn and trauma care.”