Large burn injuries today are treated with split thickness skin grafts. A dermatome, a tool comparable to a cheese slicer, is used to harvest thin slices of epidermis from donor sites on an uninjured part of the body. The harvested skin may then be meshed in order to cover a larger area by making lengthwise rows of short, interrupted cuts, offset by half a cut length like bricks in a wall. The effect reminds one of the top of an apple pie crust.
Graft donor sites are often even more painful than burn sites. The pain is both burn and donor locations may be absolutely surreal, beyond the capacity of words to describe. Donor sites may take longer to return to something normal coloration. The grafted sites, however, may always appear somewhat scarred and discolored with traces of the graft mesh pattern.
Now, according to a report on CNN, researchers are developing a technique to use inkjet printer technology to "print" live skin cells on a burn injury. It may be five years from clinical use.
A skin "bio-printer" was developed by modifying a standard store-bought printer by adding a three-dimensional "elevator" that builds on damaged tissue with fresh layers of healthy skin.
Skin-printing involves several steps. First, a piece of skin about half the size of a postage stamp is taken from the patient using a chemical solution.Those cells are then separated and replicated in large quantities in a specialized environment that catalyzes this cell development. Then the new cells are put in a printer cartridge, and printed on the patient. The printer is placed over the wound at a distance so that it doesn’t touch the burn victim. It is described as " like a flat-bed scanner that moves back and forth and put cells on" the patient. Once the new cells have been applied, they mature and form new skin.
The potential for improving burn treatment is transformational. No longer would burn victims suffer from excruciating pain on large donor sites. And the new skin evenly "printed" on the injured area should be able to grow without the kind of lattice scarring and discoloration common in skin grafts today.