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Army invests in 3-D bioprinting to treat injuries

RDECOM Public Affairs

Published: 05:06PM July 17th, 2014

A team of scientists can scan the surface of severely burned skin, creates a three-dimensional map of the wound with a laser, and then print skin cells onto the patient using a 3-D bioprinter.

Medical specialists are developing methods to transition this research from the laboratory to clinical trials.

The U.S. Army is a significant proponent and investor in regenerative medicine and 3-D bioprinting, according to officials. Scientists are aiming to advance this new research area to help injured service members recover from the wounds of war.

Dr. Michael Romanko, who provides science and technology management support for the Tissue Injury and Regenerative Medicine Project Management Office, or TIRM PMO, with the U.S. Army Medical Material Development Activity, said that improvements in body armor, vehicle design and advanced medical care during the past decade led to Soldiers suffering injuries that would have caused fatalities in previous conflicts.

Blasts from improvised explosive devices 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,” said Romanko, who holds a doctorate in molecular medicine. “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.”

The Department of Defense, in turn, established the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine, or AFIRM, a network of universities, military laboratories and investigators, in 2008. Regenerative medicine aims to replace or regenerate human cells, tissues or organs to restore or establish normal function.

3-D bioprinting is one tool that scientists are developing in the field of regenerative medicine. Skin repair is the most robust focus area addressed in the regenerative medicine portfolio, Romanko said.

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

Romanko described how scientists will take healthy cells and, using a device similar to an inkjet printer, load the cartridges with two types of skin cells -- fibroblasts and keratinocytes -- instead of ink. Fibroblasts make up the deep layer of skin, and keratinocytes compose the top layer.

After the team completes a scan of the burn and constructs a 3-D map of the injury, the bioprinter deposits each cell precisely where it needs to go, and the cells grow to become new skin.

Besides skin repair, 3-D bioprinting will also allows for bioprinting organs, limbs and vascular systems.

Early research results are promising, and scientists hope this could be a viable solution in the future, Romanko said.