Why It Took Two People to Invent Artificial Skin

by KIDS DISCOVER

Scientist's Hands Hold Artificial Skin

Thanks to a collaboration between a surgeon and a professor of fibers and polymers, extreme burn victims can count on artificial skin to help them regenerate skin cells. The game-changing material these two men developed together between 1969 and 1980 is called Integra Dermal Regeneration Template™ (Integra DRT).

When Dr. John F. Burke, a surgeon and professor at Harvard Medical School, started trying to crack the puzzle of artificial skin, scientists had already been working on the problem for a century. The challenge lay in creating a flexible product that would keep burned skin sterile and hydrated while promoting regrowth of the skin cells below it. People had tried many options, including cadaver skin and pig skin, but immune systems kept rejecting them, requiring undesirable drug therapy.

So in 1969, Dr. Burke went to nearby MIT and aksed Ioannis V. Yannas, a fibers and polymers prof, to help solve the problem. Neither could have solved it alone, because it required deep knowledge of both skin and polymers.

What’s a polymer? It’s a substance that forms in recurring molecular patterns (like plastic or DNA). Integra has two layers of polymers: A blend of cow tissue and shark cartilage (or cow with a sugar compound) provides a “scaffolding” in the bottom layer where new skin cells and blood vessels can grow. Meanwhile, the silicone top layer protects against infection and dehydration. When the new cells have grown in, in about a month, the silicone layer on top can be removed. Very, very carefully.

The regrown skin is not exactly like original skin — it has no sweat cells or hair — but it looks normal otherwise and has been a huge leap forward for modern medicine.

Newer approaches to artificial skin involve spider silk and spray-on skin, and they’re even working on solving the no-sweat issue.

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