Modern Medicine

How can scientists grow new skin in a lab from existing skin?
Answered by Discovery Channel
  • Discovery Channel

    Discovery Channel

  1. When doctors want to provide a skin graft for a burn victim, the first question is: Where to get the healthy skin? They may be able to use the patient's own skin if he still has healthy skin on his body. Even if the patient has third-degree burns spread all over his body, the soles of his feet may be untouched. A doctor can biopsy some of the healthy skin cells and send them to a laboratory. There, the healthy skin cells are fed specific nutrients to help them grow. As the skin cells grow, they multiply and divide, creating new skin cells. This process can take a long time. Over a few weeks, however, those original skin cells can grow into a big sheet of skin 100 times larger than their original size [source: Singer].

    Extracting healthy skin from another place on the patient's body can be painful and may not provide enough healthy skin. Doctors have also transplanted skin directly from cadavers, donors and even other species, but the rejection rate of skin from these sources is high. Burn victims are already vulnerable to infection, so doctors can't give them immunosuppressants to prevent rejection. Lab-grown skin, which tends not to trigger an immune system response, is most likely to be accepted by a burn victim's body and least likely to cause an infection.

    Laboratories often use other people's skin to grow artificial skin for people with burns or unhealed wounds. The foreskins off of circumcised babies have been found to be great sources for developing healthy skin in the laboratory. According to author Carolyn Strange in an "FDA Consumer" article, the circumcised foreskin is usually about the size of a postage stamp, but can be grown into almost 4 acres (1.6 hectares) of new skin. Foreskin also can be used to develop both dermal and epidermal skin - - the lower and upper layers. The foreskin skin cells are a good source to develop an epidermis because they are less likely to be rejected by the burn victim's body; older skin cells are more likely to interfere with the transplant patient's immune system.

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