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Synthetic Skin Gets a Second Life

German automation could make engineered skin affordable

2 min read

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.

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Restoring Hearing With Beams of Light

Gene therapy and optoelectronics could radically upgrade hearing for millions of people

13 min read
A computer graphic shows a gray structure that’s curled like a snail’s shell. A big purple line runs through it. Many clusters of smaller red lines are scattered throughout the curled structure.

Human hearing depends on the cochlea, a snail-shaped structure in the inner ear. A new kind of cochlear implant for people with disabling hearing loss would use beams of light to stimulate the cochlear nerve.

Lakshay Khurana and Daniel Keppeler
Blue

There’s a popular misconception that cochlear implants restore natural hearing. In fact, these marvels of engineering give people a new kind of “electric hearing” that they must learn how to use.

Natural hearing results from vibrations hitting tiny structures called hair cells within the cochlea in the inner ear. A cochlear implant bypasses the damaged or dysfunctional parts of the ear and uses electrodes to directly stimulate the cochlear nerve, which sends signals to the brain. When my hearing-impaired patients have their cochlear implants turned on for the first time, they often report that voices sound flat and robotic and that background noises blur together and drown out voices. Although users can have many sessions with technicians to “tune” and adjust their implants’ settings to make sounds more pleasant and helpful, there’s a limit to what can be achieved with today’s technology.

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