Synthetic Skin Gets a Second Life

German automation could make engineered skin affordable

PHOTO: FRAUNHOFER-GESELLSCHAFT

13 July 2009—Producing synthetic skin for grafts and testing the safety of drugs and chemicals is possible today, but it is a highly complex process requiring extensive manual work. A number of ventures that have tried to produce synthetic skin in large quantities have failed, largely due to a lack of automation in their manufacturing. But a team of scientists and engineers from several units of Germany’s Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft believe they can make engineered tissue widely available using a fully automated process they recently demonstrated.

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology worked with colleagues at the Fraunhofer institutes for Production Technology, Manufacturing Engineering and Automation, and Cell Therapy and Immunology to develop what they claim to be the first fully automated system to produce artificial skin, consisting of two layers with different cell types. It’s an ”almost perfect copy of the human skin,” says Professor Heike Mertsching, one of the coordinators of Fraunhofer’s Automated Tissue Engineering on Demand project.

That system, to be made commercially available by the end of 2010, is expected to produce about 5000 skin “equivalents” per month, each with a diameter of roughly one centimeter, at an estimated cost of about €35 (US $49) per piece. In a next step, the Fraunhofer researchers plan a fully automated system capable of producing synthetic skin with blood vessels in it. That system could hit the market as early as 2013 and would represent a big step forward in efforts by the medical industry to provide safe—and affordable—skin transplants.

The Fraunhofer technology relies on advanced sensors, control systems, and techniques, such as Raman spectroscopy, to create and monitor the biochemical and mechanical environments that cause the skin to mature. It also encompasses robotics and other advanced automation processes that may make human intervention in the artificial-tissue-growing process unnecessary. One part of the system is a fully automated cutting device for preparing biopsied skin for use in the tissue engineering process. Another is a scalable bioreactor system that boosts the yield of usable skin cells by using an integrated suite of sensors designed to detect contaminations instantly. A third innovation is the use of optical coherence tomography, a nondestructive three-dimensional imaging technique for testing the quality of the finished skin. So far, at least 19 patents have emerged from the project.

Current demand for artificial skin to test creams, cleaning agents, bandages, and drugs far exceeds the industry’s ability to produce it. The work at Fraunhofer could lead to manufacturing processes that not only help meet current demand but also take it to another level. Once the production of synthetic skin containing blood vessels is fully automated, for instance, it would allow companies to assess the risk of substances in their products entering a person’s blood stream. ”Today these tests are done on rats or mice, but they have different skin,” Mertsching says. ”A vascularized skin model would definitely be a step forward.”

Mertsching and her colleagues believe the Fraunhofer system for manufacturing vascularized tissue will someday produce a whole portfolio of human tissue products in significant quantities. These products may be used to track the pathway of substances through the entire human metabolism and gain valuable information for new drug candidates. And, no less important, it could give people with damaged tissue on their faces or elsewhere the opportunity to feel good in a new layer of affordable skin.

About the Author

John Blau writes about technology from Düsseldorf, Germany. In January 2009 he reported on the insolvency of Europe’s only major dynamic RAM maker, Qimonda.

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