Originally Published MDDI March 2005
Sugar-Based Skin Could Function Like Real Skin
|Craig Woodworth and Anja Mueller of Clarkson University are looking for materials that act and feel like real skin.|
Researchers at Clarkson University (Potsdam, NY) are working to bioengineer a skin scaffold that performs like real skin, right down to sharing characteristics such as sweat glands and hair follicles. For burn victims, an artificial skin that acts and feels like the real thing may be more beneficial than the currently used skin grafts. The team may have found the answer to creating skin from sugar.
A skin graft is the transplantation of skin from an unburned area on the patient's body, or from a cadaver, to the burn site. The process of attaching these conventional grafts, however, has problems. Complications include infection and scarring, multiple procedures, and nonmatching pigment. Bioengineered skin may reduce the chances of rejection and other complications, because it is based on materials found on the patient's body.
“It would be a thin film, strong enough for a physician to take and sew into the wound,” says Anja Mueller, assistant professor of chemistry at Clarkson University. “However, this is a long time down the road.” Before it's possible, Mueller and Craig Woodworth, associate professor of cell biology at Clarkson, must find the right combination of artificial and biological materials that will support healing and generate skin growth.
“I'm not developing a device yet,” says Mueller. “I'm developing a new material.” According to Mueller, the materials available for making a skin scaffold are limited. Any material chosen must be completely biocompatible and have the required mechanical properties. “It must be able to degrade so that your own skin cells can replace it.”
Other factors the researchers must consider for the scaffold include finding a material that the cells can adhere to and grow on. “If you don't have the right surface for those cells, they won't differentiate correctly,” says Mueller. “For example, you won't get sweat glands or hair follicles.”
Mueller has found a fairly simple synthesis for a polysaccharide-based material. Polysaccharides are long chains of sugars, such as starch or cellulose. “If you look at what compounds are in the skin cells, sugars and polysaccharides are a big portion of it,” says Mueller. Because of the similar chemical structure, her expectation is that polysaccharides should be biocompatible.
According to Mueller, the body always tries to heal itself and it is often successful. However, when a traumatic injury requires the replacement of a large area of skin, the body can sometimes go into overdrive. The result is an increase in inflammation and possible scarring. If the scaffold provided the right surface for cells to differentiate on while releasing healing bioactive signals, it would result in less scarring and trauma, and faster healing.
Research is still in the very early stages, says Mueller. Even when the team finds the right materials, it will still take time to prove their effectiveness and repeatability. “After that, we could make a usable film out of it,” she says. “We'll have to begin the research in a cell culture dish and move from there.”
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