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Dr. Marc Jeschke says the new skin printer (right) should be able to produce “a whole body’s worth of skin in four to five hours.”


It sounds like science fiction, but Sunnybrook researchers have developed a machine that produces human-like skin to treat burns. 

It's an incredible concept: Doctors printing out skin from a machine whenever burn patients need it. It might sound like science fiction, but for researchers at Sunnybrook, producing human-like skin is becoming a reality.

"Our vision is to add the cells of burn patients to the device and have it print out skin that is the colour of their skin, with sweat glands, hair, dermis, epidermis – mimicking their own anatomical skin," explains Dr. Marc Jeschke, medical director of the Ross Tilley Burn Centre at Sunnybrook. If it pans out, he adds, the device should be capable of producing "a whole body's worth of skin in four to five hours." For the millions of people around the world who suffer burns each year, "it could change the game on how we practise wound care."

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Petri dishes containing the artificial skin.

Right now, repairing skin in burn patients involves surgically removing patches of skin from elsewhere on their body and grafting the transplanted skin onto the wounds. This is a particular challenge when a patient comes to a hospital with a burn to, say, 30 per cent of their body. "They need 15 to 30 per cent from other parts of their body," says Dr. Jeschke. "That makes them sicker and increases their wound size." The Ross Tilley Burn Centre admits 250 patients a year, and Dr. Jeschke estimates between 70 and 80 of them have serious enough burns that they would benefit from this skin regeneration technique. "It would improve their quality of life and reduce their length of stay in hospital," he says.

The skin printer is just one exciting area of research for the Ross Tilley Burn Centre's laboratory of skin research. The laboratory has three main points of focus. One is skin regeneration, and the skin printer is part of that. The other two areas of study are metabolism and immunity. When a patient is burned, their metabolic and immune systems may go into hyperdrive, causing life-threatening illnesses, so scientists are looking for better ways to control these internal problems. The lab is a beehive of activity, as a growing number of scientists and students from around the world gather to seek ways of helping burn patients.

The skin printer itself looks a bit like an ordinary inkjet printer with a lot of tubes leading into it, but it is anything but ordinary. It was developed in the lab of Dr. Axel Guenther, a professor in biomaterials and biomedical engineering at the University of Toronto, which is affiliated with Sunnybrook.

Here's how it works: Special solutions are fed into the computerized machine through little wells or chambers, and the liquids are blended together. Basic ingredients include calcium chloride and a form of algae, the chemical building blocks of skin. When this gel-like substance is spun around a spool, it creates fibres that serve as the skin scaffolding or netting. This skin matrix is collected on a drum, like paper towel on a roll.

Dr. Marc Jeschke says the new skin printer (right) should be able to produce "a whole body's worth of skin in four to five hours."

Under Dr. Jeschke's leadership, scientists at the Ross Tilley Burn Centre's laboratory of skin research are hard at work to take the skin printer to the next level: finding the ideal combination of stem cells to add to the scaffolding to make layers of skin. "We're working on finding out what kind of stem cells to put in the machine, and the architecture of those cells," says Saeid Amini-Nik, a skin stem cell biologist at the lab.

What sets this skin printer apart from similar technology is that the stem cells seed right into the scaffolding as it's being created, and therefore organize themselves as they would in natural skin.

Dr. Jeschke's vision is to begin clinical trials in two years. "It is exciting," he says. "Initial results have been fascinating and very positive. I'm very convinced we'll be successful. Our preliminary data is very strong."

"These scenarios always have a focus on teamwork and communication," DeSousa says. "There are other learning objectives. In Mr. Clooney's case it's about demonstrating respiratory and airway management, but there is always an element of communication involved."

The majority of those Ontarians who experience the pain and trauma of a burn are cared for at the Ross Tilley Burn Centre. Many of them are from outside the Greater Toronto Area, arriving by helicopter or ambulance.

Once there, patients are met by a team of nurses, doctors and other staff members who are specially trained in treating burns. Carefully calibrated pain medication is used to keep them comfortable throughout their ordeal.

The centre is the only burn program of its kind in Ontario, providing comprehensive care from the time of admission, to surgery, wound care, rehabilitation, psychology and reconstructive surgery.

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The centre is named in honour of Dr. Ross Tilley, a highly skilled Canadian burn surgeon and pioneer in the treatment of burns during the Second World War. Dr. Tilley received the Order of Canada in 1982 for his contribution to burn treatment and plastic surgery.

The work of the Ross Tilley Burn Centre is globally recognized. It is the only burn centre in Canada to have received accreditation by the American Burn Association, a gold standard for burn care.

This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's advertising department, in consultation with Sunnybrook. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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