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.