Scientists in Spain have created a prototype for a 3D bio-printer which they say is the first to engineer fully functional human skin that could soon be used for transplants and tests on cosmetic and pharmaceutical products.

The 3D bio-printer, which was developed by the bioengineering department at Madrid’s Carlos III University (UC3M) and the Centre for Energy, Environmental and Technological Research (CIEMAT), promises to be a game-changer for the industry and offer new possibilities for the mass-production of skin, say its creators.

“The idea of applying 3D bio-printers for the creation of human tissue and organs is a real breakthrough because it has changed the way people in this field think,” said Jose Luis Jorcano, the team leader behind the prototype.

“Being able to use a bio-printer to control the amount of skin over time and space gives us new possibilities that were unimaginable when we worked manually,” added Jorcano.

To bio-engineer human skin on a 3D printer, the key component is “bio-ink,” which is not ink but a substance loaded with specific biological components such as plasma containing human skin cells and fibroblasts. Through a computer, these “bio-inks” are then deposited on to a print bed on which the skin is formed.

Skin is the first living human organ to be made available commercially but its production can be both expensive and time-consuming, something that these Spanish scientists hope will be a thing of the past once their bio-printer hits the market.

The 3D printed skin replicates the natural structure of human skin with an initial external layer, the epidermis which acts as protection against the external environment, together with another thicker, deeper layer, the dermis. This last layer consists of fibroblasts that produce collagen, the protein that gives elasticity and mechanical strength to the skin.

“We produce 100 percent human skin with its two main layers: dermis and epidermis, which is able to create its own collagen,” said Alfredo Brisac, the CEO of BioDan Group, a Spanish bioengineering firm specializing in regenerative medicine that is collaborating on this research and commercialising this technology.

Aside from medical applications, the scientists say the bio-printed skin offers great potential for commercial use, such as in a business setting to test chemical products, cosmetics or pharmaceutical products.

“It can be used in the medical or industrial sector, for injuries or burns. It can also be used in testing in the chemical, pharmaceutical or cosmetics industries,” added Brisac.

Jorcano said that in the future, more complex organs could be printed with the technology but it remains a work in progress.

“The idea for the future would be to be able to fully print complex organs such as hearts or kidneys but as I said, that’s the desire and the dream all of us who work in this field have, but there is no date for it yet,” he Jorcano.

The research was published recently published in the Biofabrication scientific journal.

The bio-printer was developed in collaboration with scientists from the UC3M, CIEMAT, the Gregorio Maranon General Hospital and the BioDan Group.

The scientists say their prototype can produce 100 cm2 of 3D printed skin in less than 35 minutes.