German Institute Aims to Automate Artificial Skin Production

The Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology IGB in Stuttgart, Germany, has developed a conceptual, fully automated process to improve the production of artificial skin tissue. The tissue was designed for medical scientists to use for transplants, but according to the institute, it also would be suitable for testing chemicals—at a low cost and as an alternative to animal testing.

According to the institute Web site, transplanting skin is a painstaking task, and transplants that must cover large areas, such as on burn victims, often require several operations. Thus, researchers have attempted to grow artificial tissue to allow better and faster treatment of these patients. Tissue engineering has been a focus of research for many years, and cartilage and skin are already being cultured in laboratories. However, researchers at the institute expect to fully automate this tissue production.

“Until now, methods of culturing tissue like that used for skin transplants have been very expensive,” said IGB department head Professor Heike Mertsching, in the institute's Web report. “Most of the steps are carried out manually, which means that the process is not particularly efficient.” Researchers have therefore elaborated a conceptual design in collaboration with colleagues from the Fraunhofer Institutes for Production Technology IPT, Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA, and Cell Therapy and Immunology IZI.

According to the report, within this model a biopsy is first checked for sterility. A gripper arm then transports the biopsy into an automated device where individual steps are performed: the machine cuts the biopsy into small pieces, isolates the different cell types, stimulates their growth, and mixes the skin cells with collagen. A three-dimensional reconstruction of the different skin layers is produced with the aid of a special gel matrix and the skin is ready.

In the final step, the machine packages the cells for shipment. Alternatively, the tissue can be cryopreserved. “It was important for us that the entire mechanical process is divided into separate modules,” said Mertsching, in the report. “This enables us to replace or modify individual modules, depending what is needed for the production of different tissue types.”

The method reportedly opens up almost unlimited possibilities for the medical scientists. For example, an upcoming project is to produce intestinal tissue for resorption tests. It seems to follow that skin absorption tests or chemical safety tests for cosmetic raw materials could be adapted as well—and with an automated artificial skin production method, the speed to market could greatly increase.

For more information on this technology, visit the institute Web site.

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