I’ll always remember that scene from Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) in which the mutant worshipers of the atomic bomb peel off their faces, revealing their true and grotesque visage. I was only six or seven years old when I saw it on the TV and it scared the pants off me. They were using living skin masks to cover up their mutated faces.
Last year, researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute announced that they had developed a way to 3D print living skin, complete with blood vessels. The advancement was published online in Tissue Engineering Part A. It is their hope that this development will lead to creating grafts that are more like the skin our bodies produce naturally.
“Right now, whatever is available as a clinical product is more like a fancy Band-Aid,” said Pankaj Karande, an associate professor of chemical and biological engineering and a member of the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies (CBIS), who led this research at Rensselaer. “It provides some accelerated wound healing, but eventually it just falls off; it never really integrates with the host cells.”
One of the major reasons these grafts haven’t integrated with the host skin is they don’t have a functioning vascular system. Karande has been working on this challenge for several years. He found that researchers could take two types of living human cells, make them into “bio-inks,” and print them into a skin-like structure. Since then, he and his team have been working with researchers from Yale School of Medicine to incorporate vasculature.
“As engineers working to recreate biology,” Karande said, “we’ve always appreciated and been aware of the fact that biology is far more complex than the simple systems we make in the lab.” He and his team have found that “once we start approaching that complexity, biology takes over and starts getting closer and closer to what exists in nature.”
Deepak Vashishth, the director CBIS, says, “This significant development highlights the vast potential of 3D bioprinting in precision medicine, where solutions can be tailored to specific situations and eventually to individuals.”
Reading about this made me wonder how this living skin could be used in a science-fictional setting. Could it be used to cover a robotic body, a la The Terminator? Could it be used to allow an invisible person to lead a more normal life? Could this discovery lead to even more complex organs being printed, such as a heart or liver?
What if …
- In the far future, when the technology of replacement limbs has incorporated robotics, could printed living skin be used to help the aesthetics of such a limb? What would the process look like? Would there be scars (physical, mental and/or emotional)?
- Imagine a time when the first heart is printed on a 3D printer. What would be the scenario in which it would be implanted in the first human? What would the repercussions be? Many people who have received donated organs say that they suddenly have new behaviors that came from the donor. What would happen if the donor was a computer program and a 3D printer?
- Once we have perfected the technique of 3D printing living skin, could we go a step further and induce the body to “print” it itself? What would that look like? Would it be painful? Would it be “natural”?
Check out more writing prompts inspired by actual science stories in my “Writing Prompts” category.