3D printing can solve some of life’s great problems – like creating a bandage that stays in place. The problem with bandages is that they don’t conform well to the skin, so they fall off easily. 3D printing, however, is good at creating things that fit perfectly to each individual wearer, and bandages are no exception, especially when those bandages can be printed directly on the skin.
Temple University bioengineering professor Jonathan Gerstenhaber, along with colleagues, created a 3D printer that uses an electrospinning technique to print bandages directly onto a patient’s skin, making them fit perfectly, like a second skin. They not only cover and protect the wound, but help it to heal faster by regenerating the skin.
“The main technique is making a fabric, sort of like a felt,” said Gerstenhaber. “Individual fibers are hundreds of nanometers wide—much thinner than a hair. Instead of using wool fibers, we take soy proteins and turn them into very thin fibers. At an image level, it this looks a lot like the natural matrix of how our cells live.”
He was inspired last year when he was a PhD student by a presentation given by Bioengineering Department Chair Peter Lelkes, who was working on bone regeneration using cytosine, one of the bases found in DNA.
“What he found was that suddenly he had an ability to lay these fabrics on holes drilled in skulls of mice, and they could heal them,” Gerstenhaber said. “[The holes were] big enough that they wouldn’t [normally] heal on a mouse.”
He began working on creating bandages using electrospinning, a production method used to make polymer fiber, though Gerstenhaber’s fibers are made from soy protein.
Jonathan Gerstenhaber explains his electrospinning 3D printer. [Image: Jamie Cottrell/The Temple News]
“The method we use to create these fibers is sort of how you create thread from wool by pulling it through a needle and spinning it—just a hundred times smaller,” Gerstenhaber said. “The thread is pulled through an electric field from that soy protein solution.”
The 3D printer prototype is itself made from 3D printed components, and Gerstenhaber and his colleagues also created a smaller, handheld version, which is closer to being ready for the market than the larger version. In a demo given in late March, a robot moved a 3D printed nose, created from a CT scan, while the 3D printer spun the fibers to land consistently across the part.
The team has been focusing on the healing properties of the bandages, looking particularly at wounds that don’t heal well, like burns – an application already seeing significant research for 3D printing. They’re also looking into the possibility of using the bandages as interface tissue for implanting new body parts.
“The larger focus of our lab (integrated cellular tissue engineering and regenerative medicine Lab, or i-CTERM) is tissue engineering: rather than building new parts, like a new hip, finding ways for that hip to repair the damage that may have been done to it,” Gerstenhaber said. “But, sometimes we really do need to rely on surgery. Ideally, anything being implanted into your body will integrate productively, and these fabrics help with that.”
The larger version of the 3D printer is still undergoing some alterations to improve its efficiency; the scan of the affected area to personalize the bandages is still time-consuming. Gerstenhaber hopes that in the future, the handheld version of the device will become a household object. Tissue regeneration, he said, is the best solution for healing wounds.
“If I can allow your body to heal itself, that’s really the best thing I can give to you,” he said. “Especially if that healing is natural and is complete.”
[Sources: The Temple News, Temple University]