Skin may soon be created on 3D printers in quantities large enough to treat burn victims, people recovering from surgery or simply for cosmetic purposes.
Some analysts believe the industry creating 3D-printed skin could reach one billion dollars in sales in the next 10 years. In addition to skin, 3D printers are also being used to manufacture other human organs, along with food and even rocket engines.
L'Oreal, a well-known cosmetics company, has worked for years researching methods of creating artificial skin, investing one billion dollars in the research during 2013. The French cosmetics company has partnered with Organovo, a manufacturer utilizing 3D printers to manufacture human tissue. The use of these devices could allow the partnership a fast, inexpensive way of manufacturing artificial skin for patients.
The 3D-printed skin is manufactured for real skin cells donated from centers performing plastic surgery. These samples are cultured, producing new skin cells ready to be used in human recipients.
"We create an environment that's as close as possible to being inside someone's body ... because the skin has different layers and you have to grow them in succession," said Guive Balooch, global vice president of L'Oreal's technology incubator.
Artificially-produced skin could also provide a means for the cosmetics company to test its products without the use of human volunteers or animals. The companies are searching for a means of producing the skin in greater quantities than is currently possible.
"Some of the biggest potential advantages are the speed of production as well as the level of precision that 3D printing can achieve. L'Oreal's focus right now is not to increase the quantity of skin we produce but instead to continue to build on the accuracy and consistent replication of the skin engineering process," Balooch said.
In Lyon, France, L'Oreal currently manufactures human skin in lab stations stretching over an area equal to three Olympic-sized swimming pools. However, the current method of producing skin is labor-intensive, requiring five dozen works to create 100,000 samples of human skin each year, each about 0.08 square inches in size. Annual production runs approximately 54 square feet, roughly as large as the hide from a single cow. Developers want to automate the process in an effort to provide enough skin to satisfy the needs of research, medicine and cosmetics.
L'Oreal currently uses about half of the skin it produces and sells the remainder to other companies and research centers. In 2011, the price for each sample averaged around $70.
If the partnership is successful, L'Oreal will retain non-prescription skin care product rights, while Organovo will keep rights for surgical and research purposes.