The science of skin grafting has come a long way from the days when the skin was scraped from one part of a patient’s body and sewn to another to cover a burn or injury. Today, grafts are commonly bioprinted, using the patient’s cultured cells to trigger the growth process, up to vascularization.

The main disadvantage of these printed grafts is that they can only be produced as flat sheets with open edges. This method “ignores the completely closed geometry of human skin,” according to a team of researchers from Columbia University. Instead, they developed a new method of producing skin in almost any complex 3D shape, from ears and elbows to entire arms, printed as Buffalo Bills gloves.

Researchers are working on seamless 3D skin grafts for burn patients

The team published their findings under the title “Engineering edgeless human skin with enhanced biomechanical properties” in the January issue of the journal Scientific Advances. They explained how they created “skin as a fully enclosed 3D tissue that can be shaped after a body part and seamlessly transplanted as a biological clothing.”

“Three-dimensional skin constructs that can be transplanted as ‘biological clothing’ would have many advantages,” says lead developer Hasan Erbil Abaci, PhD, assistant professor of dermatology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. “They would dramatically minimize the need for suturing, reduce the length of surgeries, and improve aesthetic outcomes.”

Not only that, these homogeneous grafts showed better performance, both mechanically and functionally, than their alternatives. The Columbia University team called the grafts “wearable edgeless skin constructs” (WESC).

Initial laboratory tests in mouse models were encouraging.

“It was like putting a pair of shorts on the mice,” Abaci says, “The entire surgery took about 10 minutes.”

But the skin of mice is not human skin. It heals differently, so more animal studies will be needed. Most likely, such tests are still many years away.