While most are familiar with the potential for 3D printers to pump out plastic odds and ends for around the home, the technology also has far-reaching applications in the medical field. Research is already underway to develop 3D bioprinters able to create things as complex as human organs, and now engineering students in Canada have created a 3D printer that produces skin grafts for burn victims.

Called PrintAlive, the new machine was developed by University of Toronto engineering students Arianna McAllister and Lian Leng, who worked in collaboration with Professor Axel Guenther, Boyang Zhang and Dr. Marc Jeschke, the head of Sunnybrook Hospital's Ross Tilley Burn Centre.

While the traditional treatment for serious burns involves removing healthy skin from another part of the body so it can be grafted onto the affected area, the PrintAlive machine could put an end to such painful harvesting by printing large, continuous layers of tissue – including hair follicles, sweat glands and other human skin complexities – onto a hydrogel. Importantly, the device uses the patient's own cells, thereby eliminating the problem of the tissue being rejected by their immune system.

Because growing a culture of a patient's skin cells ready for grafting can typically take more than two weeks, the machine prints the patient's cells out in patterns of spots or stripes rather than a continuous sheet, to make them go further. The result is a cell-populated wound dressing that reproduces key features of human skin and can be precisely controlled in terms of thickness, structure and composition.

Having been under development since 2008, the team recently completed a second-generation, pre-commercial prototype that they say is smaller than an average microwave. This makes it portable enough to easily transport, which gives it the potential to one day revolutionize burn care in rural and developing areas around the world.

"Ninety per cent of burns occur in low and middle income countries, with greater mortality and morbidity due to poorly-equipped health care systems and inadequate access to burn care facilities," says Jeschke. "Regenerating skin using a patient’s own stem cells can significantly decrease the risk of death in developing countries."

So far, the 3D-printed skin grafts have been tested on mice, with the team planning to move onto pigs before clinical trials on humans in the next few years. They were recently named the Canadian winners in the 2014 James Dyson Awards, giving them US$3,500 to continue development and putting them in the running for the $60,000 main prize.

The PrintAlive bioprinter is detailed in the video below.

Sources: University of Toronto, James Dyson Award