And 3D-printed organs aren't far behind.
Image: Wake Forest University
The US Army is hoping to soon begin clinical trials with 3D-printed skin. The goal is helping soldiers better recover from injuries sustained in battle—and the Army also actively developing artificial 3D printed hearts, blood vessels, and other organs.
It's no secret that 3D-printed human tissue is in the works, but the Army's technology is so far along that it could soon be battle ready. In the latest issue of Army Technology, an official publication of the US military, Army researchers claim that the future of medicine is customizable, available on-demand, and 3D printed.
"The scars that soldiers develop as a result of burns constrict movement and disfigure them permanently," Michael Romanko, a doctor with the Army's Tissue Injury and Regenerative Medicine Project told the magazine. The initiative to restore high-quality skin that is elastic and complete with sweat glands, appropriate pigmentation, and hair follicles is incredibly important. Everyone has a different type of energy, and not everyone's skin injury looks the same. Skin bioprinting would provide a scalable form of personalized medicine."
Here's how it works, according to Wake Forest University's Institute for Regenerative Medicine, where much of this research is taking place:
Scientists designed, built and tested a printer designed to print skin cells onto burn wounds. The 'ink' is actually different kinds of skin cells. A scanner is used to determine wound size and depth. Different kinds of skin cells are found at different depths. This data guides the printer as it applies layers of the correct type of cells to cover the wound. You only need a patch of skin one-tenth the size of the burn to grow enough skin cells for skin printing.
You can see a video of the printer in action (on a mock hand) here.
The technology is especially necessary because of the rise of better body armor and improvements in battlefield medicine. Fewer soldiers are dying in war, but they're surviving injuries they likely would have died from in the past, often leaving them disfigured. The goal now is to not just save their lives, but to preserve their future quality of life as well. So, while 3D-printed skin is the start, it's certainly not the end. The Army is also actively looking into 3D printing hearts and other organs, though those are likely further off.
"In the future, through additive manufacturing, we may be able to produce a heart and do transplants," Thomas Russell, director of the US Army Research Laboratory, told the magazine. "Many of the injuries soldiers receive in the field are not traditional. A lot of the medical community sees this as a new approach to medicine."
And, while that approach may start in the military, it's going to eventually end up in the general population. We could see 3D-printed skin and other organs at your local hospital relatively soon.
“This has very widespread use, not only to the military audience, but also to the civilian population," Romanko said. "We need a larger commercialization audience in order to be a self-sustaining technology,”