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U of T’s handheld 3D skin printer could revolutionize wound treatment and burn care

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A group of researchers from the University of Toronto in Canada have created a handheld 3D skin printer for treating deep wounds. The portable printing device, reportedly the first of its kind, is capable of precisely depositing layers of a bioink directly into a deep wound to help with the healing process.

Weighing under a kilogram and no larger than a shoe, the 3D skin printer might not look particularly remarkable. But with the ability to extrude thin layers of a special bioink directly onto open wounds for faster healing, the 3D skin printer could potentially revolutionize deep wound treatments and burn care.

If a deep wound is inflicted, all three layers of a patient’s skin (the epidermis, dermis and hypodermis) will often be damaged—sometimes severely. Typically, treatment for such wounds consists of a process called split-thickness skin grafting, which entails grafting healthy donor skin onto the dermis layer and the top epidermis layer. Though mostly effective, split-thickness skin grafting does have its limitations. For instance, because donor skin grafts are often in short supply, large wounds are often only partially grafted, which can result in compromised healing.

Additionally, because many 3D bioprinters are not compatible with clinical applications (because of their slow speeds, bulkiness and cost) many tissue-engineered skin substitutes are not generally used for clinical applications. With their handheld skin printer, however, the U of T team believes it has made a breakthrough.

In simple terms, the innovative device deposits vertical stripes of a bioink onto sheets of tissue formed using an integrated microdevice. The bioink itself is made from protein-based biomaterials such as collagen (the dominant protein found in the dermis) and fibrin (a protein crucial in wound healing). The bioink embedded tissue sheets are then printed directly onto the patient’s wound.

Overcoming one of the main bioprinting hurdles, the 3D skin printer is designed to work extraordinarily quickly, as the researchers say it can deposit the skin tissue in situ and set it all in under two minutes. Additionally, by doing away with the washing and incubation phases often necessitated with more traditional bioprinting, the handheld printer is also remarkably simple to use and requires minimal operator training.

“Our skin printer promises to tailor tissues to specific patients and wound characteristics,” added Navid Hakimi, the PhD student leading the project. “And it’s very portable.” Going forward, the research team intends to advance the 3D skin printer by expanding the size of “coverable wound areas.”

At this stage, the researchers are collaborating with Dr. Marc Jeschke, director of the Ross Tilley Burn Centre at Sunnybrook Hospital and professor of immunology at the Faculty of Medicine, and his team to conduct more in vivo studies. Eventually, they aim to launch a series of human-based clinical trials.

The innovative research project was recently published in the journal Lab on a Chip under the title “Handheld skin printer: in situ formation of planar biomaterials and tissues.”

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