By Eddie Wrenn
PUBLISHED: 11:22 EST, 1 August 2012 | UPDATED: 11:23 EST, 1 August 2012
Scientists have been able to engineer skin on a large-scale – growing centimetres at a time, a huge step-up from previous techniques which could grow just microns at a time.
The researchers from the University of Toronto are able to grow sheets of skin by placing individual cells into a gel-like sheet, and they can be even be grown into specific shapes – such as letters.
Axel Guenther, associate professor in the department of mechanical and industrial engineering, said: ‘There’s a lot of interest in soft materials, particularly biomaterials, but until now no one has demonstrated a simple and scalable one-step process to go from microns to centimeters.’
The invention, presented in a cover article for the journal Advanced Materials this month, is currently being commercialised, with the university filing two patents on the device.
The scientists perfected the technique by mixing biomaterials, causing a chemical reaction that forms a ‘mosaic hydrogel’ – a sheet-like substance compatible with the growth of cells into living tissues, into which different types of cells can be seeded in very precise and controlled placements.
This is unlike more typical methods, for instance scaffolding, where cells are seeded onto an artificial structure capable of supporting three-dimensional tissue formation.
Instead, cells are planted onto the mosaic hydrogel sheets as they are being created – generating the perfect conditions for cells to grow.
The placement of the cells is so precise, in fact, that scientists can spell words and can precisely mimic the natural placement of cells in living tissues, which could prove very beneficial for burn victims.
The resulting tissues, says Lian Leng, lead author on the project and a 3rd year PHD candidate, are remarkably stable.
She said: ‘In this case, when we put the cells in the right places we create cellular organization quite naturally.’
Guenther added: ‘My laboratory is currently pursuing different applications of the technology- different tissues.’
Currently, the two UofT labs are also collaborating their research with a burn unit at Sunnybrook Hospital.
‘At some point [the machine] could allow dermal [skin] grafts to be prepared that perhaps will be less expensive, and more efficient,’ said Guenther.