Article by Jasmine Adams & Roberta Lock
Engineering Human Skin: Revolutionizing Wound Healing & Cosmetic Enhancements
Alberto Pappalardo et al., Hasan E. Abaci Lab
Skin is the largest organ in the human body, and it plays a crucial role in providing protection from injury and environmental hazards. This is why restoring skin function after severe burns, wounds, or skin diseases is an especially critical pursuit within medical science. Traditional three-dimensional (3D) skin constructs, while beneficial, are often hindered by a lack of integration and functionality which can lessen their ability to fully restore skin function. To overcome these challenges, researchers made a leap forward by developing innovative wearable edgeless skin constructs (WESCs), which recapitulate the form and function of human skin and aim to improve the effectiveness of skin regeneration treatments.
What did these researchers do?
In this study, the Abaci lab presents a novel approach to generate WESCs that closely resemble the anatomical and functional characteristics of human skin. By combining cell culture techniques with advanced 3D printing and tissue engineering methods, fully enclosed skin constructs could be engineered in complex, anatomically-relevant designs, addressing one of the major limitations of conventional 3D skin models (Fig. 1-2). These WESCs exhibited enhanced epidermal coverage, dermal composition, mechanical properties, and the potential for vascularization, making them promising candidates for seamless transplantation onto complex anatomical sites for skin regeneration. To assess the performance and viability of the constructs, researchers conducted a transplantation experiment on mouse hindlimbs, demonstrating their potential for successful integration and regeneration in a living organism.
Why is this important?
This study opens up new avenues of research in personalized treatment of burn injuries, chronic wounds, and various skin-related conditions. The use of advanced 3D printing and tissue engineering enables researchers to create custom 3D models specifically from patient data, ensuring the skin constructs match individual anatomical features. These advancements offer the potential for more effective and personalized therapies, leading to improved healing outcomes and enhanced patient wellbeing. The ability to create functional, anatomically complex WESCs paves the way for future advancements in reconstructive surgery, cosmetic procedures, and even the development of artificial skin for transplantation purposes.
How did the researchers do this?
In order to create the WESC, a 3D laser scan was performed of the desired anatomically complex body site—in this case, a human hand. A computer-aided design (CAD) model was then generated from the scan data, serving as a blueprint for 3D printing a scaffold that mimics the structure of the site. The scaffold was then seeded with human cells to complete the construction. Then, they individually combined these cells with specific growth factors. The scaffolds were cultured with this solution to form the epidermis, while endothelial cells were seeded to promote blood vessel formation. Over time, the cells matured and formed layered skin outside the scaffold. These wearable skin constructs were then grafted onto mice to study how well they would integrate with the living tissue.
Wearable Edgeless Skin Constructs in culture (left) and after removal (right)
What comes next?
This research has the potential to transform fields like cosmetology and plastic surgery, opening new possibilities for reconstructive procedures and cosmetic enhancements. The exploration of other, more complex body sites, such as the face, presents unique challenges and opportunities for advancing the engineering of functional skin constructs. However, even for the hand, there are still several areas in which future work can improve these scaffolds.
For instance, increasing cellular complexity of WESCs is paramount for both functional and aesthetic purposes. This involves developing skin appendages—like hair follicles and sweat glands—as well as incorporating pigmentation (with the introduction of melanocytes) allowing the engineered skin to resemble natural skin more closely. Additionally, further research is necessary in order to incorporate functional neurons into the engineering skin constructs. Neurons are essential for restoring sensory perceptions like pressure, heat, and pain, which are vital for previously damaged areas.
Looking toward the future, the integration of engineered skin with other tissues holds immense promise as an eventual goal for the field. By combining skin with cartilage, muscle, and bone, researchers aim to create fully functional tissue units that mimic the complexity of natural systems. However, it’s important to acknowledge that this specific aspiration is not yet within our reach today and represents a long-term vision being actively pursued in the fields of regenerative medicine and tissue engineering.