BERLIN -- Researchers at a Stuttgart lab are using baby foreskins to grow artificially-cultivated skin, the German weekly Focus reports.
The Fraunhofer Institute IGB is fine-tuning the automation of skin growth from pre-existing cells in hopes of replacing other methods of product testing including animal trials, the laboratory says.
Its Hautfabrik, or "Skin Factory" machine, fully automates the cultivation of skin cells, which then grow on their own in a biological process.
"We want to target chemical, cosmetic or pharmaceutical companies who need human tissue to develop their products," Professor Heike Walles, Head of Cell Systems at the institute, said.
"The idea is to grow human tissue that can be used as an alternative to animal testing, not least because many medicines cause side-effects during clinical [human] trials that were not present during animal trials."
Divided into three fully-automated modules, the system first measures, cuts and extracts cells from a stamp-sized piece of human skin. The cells are then isolated and allowed to divide while being incubated and periodically "fed". Finally, the cells are spread onto a gel matrix, mixed with collagen and allowed to grow into an actual piece of human skin complete with epidermic, dermic and hypodermic layers.
"The older the skin is, the worse the cells function," The Local quoted engineer Andreas Traube as saying on the origin of the cells.
"It is also important that the cells come from a uniform source," he added. "This avoids discrepancies in the production of new skin."
Despite the fully-automated process, biology sets the pace, not the machine: developers say the system must be flexible enough to accommodate a natural rate of growth. The process can take up to six weeks, The Local reported.
Andreas Traube, an engineer in the institute's department of Production Technology and Automation said a special set of software allows for human intervention during the process: "It's not a static process, rather it depends on cell growth."
Researchers say they are interested in developing other tissues such as cartilage or skin with blood vessels, which could actually be used as transplant material in patients.
"The big advantage is that we could develop so-called "body-native" transplants," Welles said. "We would take a small biopsy from a patient, isolate the relevant cells, multiply them and create a native transplant, which may keep patient from having to take medicine long-term, lower the danger of the body rejecting the transplant and even possibly eliminate the issue of donor organs shortages."
The institute says it hopes to see the machines in clinics for the development of organs locally and more or less on-demand.
Photo: Fraunhofer Institute