Over 5,000 skin grafts are performed each year in the United States alone. Most of these grafts come from the wounded individual or a donor. There are currently few ways of manufacturing artificial skin, but there are drawbacks because it doesn’t act precisely like real skin. That may change, as a Swiss lab has successfully tested an artificial skin that is biologically functional. The results come from Daniela Marino of University Children’s Hospital Zurich and were published in Science Translational Medicine.
Skin is the largest organ in the body and it has the very important task of protecting the body against contaminants. It isn’t just a watertight solid tissue, it is very dynamic and full of hair follicles and sweat glands, which help regulate body temperature. When skin is lost, either to burns, injuries, or extensive surgery, it needs to be replaced as quickly as possible with a graft.
The best matches come from other parts of the patients body, but if enough good skin isn’t available, artificial skin can be used. These types of grafts are typically made from collagen scaffolding and coated with stem cells that grow over the course of a few weeks into skin cells.
When the body is injured, fluids accumulate in the area to try and help the healing process. The body’s natural lymphatic system is able to redirect these fluids back into the blood stream, but artificial skin does not have these vessels. Without being able to regulate fluid buildup, the graft could die and need to be replaced, creating another lengthy waiting process.
This new study, performed on mouse models, showed that an artificial skin actually can be pretty close to the real thing. A gel-like scaffolding was populated with blood and lymph cells. After a period of incubation, the skin was grafted onto a test subject and actually did regulate fluid content.
This new technique has drawn in a bit of criticism, particularly due to its practicality. While there are definitely some burn victims that lack enough healthy tissue to transplant, most people in need of a graft can easily get the skin from elsewhere on their body with no rejection and full function. Fluid buildup is managed in other ways, so it could be difficult to get this artificial skin to a point where it is economically competitive with other treatments.
However, Dr. Marino remains confident that this new skin could change lives. Some graft patients, like diabetics and those with vascular disease, do not respond typically to skin placed from other areas of the body. There are not currently any human trials scheduled for this artificial skin, though she hopes they will be coming soon, though there is no word if future studies will try to link the skin to the nervous system as well.