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What is Artificial Skin?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Artificial skin is a product which can be used for temporary or permanent replacement of damaged skin. Classically, doctors use synthetic skin on burn victims. There are a number of different types of artificial skin, ranging from sheets of human skin grown from the patient's own cells to entirely synthetic products which are designed to act as a support so that the body can grow its own skin as it heals.

The standard of care for severe burns involves removing the damaged skin and replacing it as quickly as possible. In the case of people with mild burns, the damaged skin can be replaced with a graft from elsewhere on the body. However, in people who are burned on more than 50% of the body, this is not an option. These types of burns can become fatal, because the patient is extremely vulnerable to infection, and this is where artificial skin comes in.

Some synthetic skin products are designed as temporary covers to protect the body while it heals. These products may be designed to be removed, or they may have layers. For example, some products include a collagen matrix layer which is designed to stimulate the body so that it will grow a new dermis, with a temporary upper layer that acts as a protective cover until the dermis is established. Once the dermis has grown back, the upper layer can be removed, and a thin graft of epidermis can be applied.

Artificial skin made from the cells of the patient's body is created in labs by harvesting fibroblasts and keratinocytes, two types of cells involved in skin production, and then culturing them on a collagen matrix. Scientists can only grow epidermal skin, not the deeper dermis, but the production of epidermal grafts is still important, as it can leave more of the patient's undamaged skin available for cosmetic grafting on the face and hands.

Labs can also grow artificial skin from donated tissue, such as the foreskins removed in circumcisions. The donated foreskin material from a single infant can be utilized to grow skin grafts for many full-grown adults. This skin is created by establishing a matrix and then stimulating the cells to grow on it, creating a sheet which can be transplanted onto a burn victim.

New developments in artificial skin are constantly being made, improving the prognosis for burn patients considerably. Newer products are also less likely to create severe scarring, which keeps patients more comfortable and mobile, and helps them reintegrate into society after they are fully healed.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By pleonasm — On May 31, 2012

I can't wait until they manage to make engineered skin that can act as a suitable replacement for cosmetic testing. Human kind hardly even wants to give up on its toys for moral reasons, and vivisection seems to be one of those toys. Animals are still being used to test things like shampoos and lipsticks. Now, I'm not completely against using them for medical experiments as long as it is done in a humane way, but putting lotions in their eyes just to see how much it stings is wrong.

If they could make a kind of artificial skin that worked as naturally as human skin (i.e. with different layers, rather than just one kind of cell) then they wouldn't need to use animals at all in that kind of testing and any organization that continued to do so would be shown up for how awful they really are.

By irontoenail — On May 31, 2012

@croydon - I think if you inquire at the hospital whether or not there are burn victims that could use the foreskin, and if the hospital even has the facilities to use foreskins to make artificial skin, that should be enough to make the choice.

If there aren't any burn victims who need your child's foreskin, then I wouldn't try to get them circumcised. There are other options, including taking donated skin from people who are recently deceased, or, as it says in the article, growing artificial tissues from the victim's own cells.

Being burned is terrible, of course, but there are a lot of circumcisions done in the world, many of which would be done anyway, so I don't think people need to start doing them just to help the burn victims.

By croydon — On May 30, 2012

Wow I didn't realize that they used foreskin to grow skin for people who had been in accidents. I've always thought that must be the most terrible thing you can have happen to you, being burned over a large amount of your body. Not only are you in massive amounts of pain and at constant risk of infection, the few places that haven't been burned are likely going to be cut so that they can use that skin to treat your burns.

And it takes a long time to heal, so you can't do anything much for months and months.

I've never been that much of a fan of foreskin removal, as I'm not religious and as I understand it there's no real medical reason to have it done in a developed country, but I think I would have it done to my kids just so they can help to save the lives of others by providing artificial skin for burn victims.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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