July 11, 2014

The U.S. Army is investing in regenerative medicine and 3-D bioprinting, according to officials. Scientists are aiming to print skin cells on the patient using a 3D bio-printer to help injured soldiers recover from the wounds of war.

Burns account for 10 percent to 30 percent of battlefield casualties. Dr. Michael Romanko, who provides science and technology management support for the Tissue Injury and Regenerative Medicine Project Management Office with the U.S. Army Medical Material Development Activity, said that improvements in body armor, vehicle design during the past decade have increased the number of Soldiers experiencing the loss of limbs, catastrophic injuries to the face and severe burns.

"There was an increasing need to deliver therapies for wounded warriors. We saw a spike in the severity of the trauma that these Soldiers were receiving. As we increased the quality of battle armor, the injuries they were surviving were that much more debilitating," said Romanko.

In 2008 The Department of Defense established the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine (AFIRM), a multi-institutional, interdisciplinary network of universities, military laboratories and investigators, which focuses on skin repair, regenerating human cells, tissues or organs to restore or establish normal function.

"The scars that Soldiers develop as a result of burns constrict movement and disfigure them permanently. The initiative to restore high-quality skin that is elastic and complete with sweat glands, appropriate pigmentation and hair follicles is incredibly important," Romanko said.

Researchers first scan the burn and constructs a 3D map of the injury. They use a device similar to an inkjet printer, load the cartridges with two types of healthy skin cells — fibroblasts and keratinocytes — instead of ink. The computer tells the printer where to start printing, and what type of cells to use, depending on the depth of the injury and the layer being reconstructed. Fibroblasts make up the deep layer of skin, and keratinocytes compose the top layer. The bioprinter deposits each cell precisely where it needs to go, and the cells grow to become new skin.

Early research results are promising. And 3D bioprinting also allows for a custom solution for each patient. "Everyone has a different type of injury, and not everyone's skin injury looks the same. Skin bioprinting would provide a scalable form of personalized medicine," Romanko said.

In addition AFIRM has also have focused on bioprinting organs, limbs and vascular systems, the generation of complex tissue components with bone and muscle.

Photo Credit: Photo courtesy Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine
Scientists at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine print ear, finger bone and kidney structure scaffolds using a 3-D printer.

About 30 universities, hospitals and additional partners, led by the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, make up the consortium of AFIRM researchers. Engineers work with bioimaging experts to develop the actual bioprinters and technology to scan the topology of injury sites, like the skin, or recreate the 3-D structures of other organs. In turn, biologists and physicians who specialize in the specific organ or tissue being produced oversee the process to ensure the appropriate placement of cells and construction of tissue.

AFIRM receives funding from the U.S. Army, the Office of Naval Research, Air Force Surgeon General's Office, Veterans Health Administration, National Institutes of Health and the Office of Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs.

"This has very widespread use, not only to the military audience, but also to the civilian population. We need a larger commercialization audience in order to be a self-sustaining technology," he said.


Posted in 3D Printing Applications

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