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A New Way to Regenerate Skin for Victims of Third-Degree Burns

Before I get to the topic in the headline, here’s a quick story: As I’ve written about in past blog entries, even the most mundane situations inside the home can result in third-degree burns. Another example came to light this week in Worthington, VA, where a routine cooking accident severely burned a man and damaged much of the home.

It was this simple: A visitor to the home accidentally splashed oil from a deep fryer onto the stove and onto the floor. Unfortunately, the oil landed on the visitor’s hands and feet, instantly causing second- and third-degree burns that required treatment at the West Penn Burn Center across the state border. Furthermore, the splashed oil also caused the window curtains to catch fire. Fire crews from four towns had to respond to the fire. The family now lives in a hotel temporarily, thanks to the American Red Cross.

Now for the good news that this blog’s title refers to. The web site InHabitat.com reported this week that scientists from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine are advancing in their goal to regenerate more of a person’s own healthy skin to repair burn damage on another part of the body. Inspired by, of all things, the typical office printer and its ink cartridge, the research team believes it could soon “print” human skin.

Speaking to CNN, Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the institute, said that the project starts with duplicating a burn victim’s healthy skins cells in a lab. Then, “the next step is to put the cells in the printer, in a cartridge, and literally print on the patient.” The bio-printer is expected to be a converted office printer, but with the addition of a three-dimensional “elevator” that builds on damaged tissue with fresh layers of healthy skin. The printer is placed over the wound, allowing the flat-bed scanner to “move back and forth and put cells on the victim,” Atala said. The cells then harden, mature and grow into new skin.

The team believes that this treatment could be a reality within five years. The project is currently in pre-clinical phases. Among the first victims who likely will test the treatment are wounded soldiers returning from combat. According to the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine, burns account for between five and 20 percent of combat-related injuries. As a result, the Wake Forest institute will receive approximately $50 million in funding from the US Department of Defense.

It is not just the Wake Forest Institute that is working on this procedure. Other universities, including Cornell University and the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, are also working on similar projects and announced their research at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference this month.

And the next challenge for these scientists: Creating new organs from this same process.