Imagine being a soldier in Afghanistan today. Your platoon is attacked by a group of insurgents who set your outpost on fire. In the chaos and confusion, you step into a pile of embers, and your clothes catch on fire. Your fellow soldiers stamp out the fire but not before you’ve experienced third degree burns across your arms, chest and legs. The medics arrive and a doctor rushes towards you. He lays you down and quickly sprays a misty substance over your seared skin. “Don’t worry, son,” he says reassuringly after he finishes, “your skin will completely heal in a few weeks.” His words are comforting as you fall into unconsciousness.

It is the dream of science fiction writers: a gun that paints new skin on to burns and wounds. Today, burn victims go through excruciating pain and extensive surgeries during which skin grafts from other parts of the body are taken to cover the burnt areas. But a skin spraying gun would make the healing process much quicker and less painful.

In fact, we are much closer to having such a gun than ever before. Just a few weeks ago, researchers from Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine demonstrated a unique printer that will print skin cells directly on the burnt bodies of victims. Initial testing in mice showed advanced healing of wounds within three weeks, approximately half the time it usually takes.

A regular printer works by laying down ink drop by drop on a piece of paper. The Wake Forest Institute’s bioprinter lays down skin cells (along with coagulants and collagen) drop by drop on the burnt body parts. At the Institute, researchers have taken a regular printer, filled the cartridges with skin cells and printed new skin to heal mice. Next on their list are pigs, who have skin that is much more similar to humans. Human testing is not projected to occur anytime soon. However, given Wake Forest Institute’s success with bioprinted bladders that were transplanted successfully in humans, we can conservatively say spray skin will be available at your local hospital within the decade. 

For some more technical details and a look at the printer in action, take a look at this fascinating short video.

Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.