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3D printed skin: rather science than fiction - Interview with dr Sophie Wuerger

3D printed skin: rather science than fiction - Interview with dr Sophie Wuerger

Publish date: 2013-12-13

3D printed organs or tissues might sound a little bit futuristic, but it would be a big chance to heal people in the future. 3D printing has got a lot of advantages and one of them is definitely computer-guided precision and high speed of receiving products. Scientists from the University of Liverpool alongside with their colleagues in Manchester conduct research on printing 3D skin. They are also taking into account the perception of skin appearance by human visual system and they want to create convincing artificial skin. This project is led by dr Sophie Wuerger, who told us a little bit about this research.

Tags: 3D printing , organ printing , skin

Where did the idea of printing skin come from?

The idea to get this project started came from the co-investigator Dr. Kaida Xiao, who has worked previously on a similar project Professor Julian Yates in Sheffield. Both, Dr. Xiao and Professor Yates are involved in the current project.


Could you describe in a short way the project that is led by you at the moment?

I am the principal investigator on this project which will be lasting three years, but Dr. Kaida Xiao, the co-investigator, is in charge of the day-to-day running of the project. Kaida has been working on additive manufacturing of facial prostheses during the last few years, in collaboration with Professor Juian Yates at Manchester. 


Who is funding this project and was raising funds hard?

The project is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Obtaining funding is very competitive.


What material would this skin be made of?

The manufacturing process of human soft tissue prostheses will be led by Professor Yates in Manchester. First, a set of printer colour profiles for a Zcorp Z510 3D colour printer will be generated. Rather than printing on paper, all samples are printed in starch powder and infiltrated in clear silicone after printing.


Why using 3D cameras is so important in this project?

It is important to obtain an accurate image of the 3D structure of the face since the 3D structure will affect the appearance of the printed skin.

 I know that you want to build up a database of skin types. Could you tell me something more about it?

The purpose of this work is to develop a complete spectral-based 3D imaging system which will allow us to additively manufacture soft tissue prosthetics or deliver predictable tattooing techniques that will exactly match the skin colour of a particular individual (Application 1) or have the capability to rapidly manufacture/3D print soft tissue replacements representative of a particular ethnic/age/gender group with a high degree of accuracy (Application 2). The data base of skin types will be important in Application 2. Here, the skin manufacturing process will not be fine-tuned for a particular individual, but input to the 3D imaging system will consist of basic information about the age, gender and ethnicity. Representative skin samples (colour, texture, translucency, geometry) for this group will then be loaded from a pre-computed library instead of using the measurements from an individual. The 2nd application might be useful in circumstances where a 3D camera system is not available and skin needs to be manufactured rapidly for a particular gender, age or ethnicity. Potential applications include developing countries or regions without readily available innovative health care technology.

You are working alongside with your colleagues in Manchester. How does the division of labor look like?

In the first two years, we will be mainly working on the image acquisition, image processing of the 3D skin textures, modeling skin appearance and understanding how skin appearance, natural and synthetic, might change under different illumination conditions. The focus in Liverpool will be to really understand skin appearance and how the properties of skin (tone, texture, translucency) affect skin appearance and how these properties interact with the ambient viewing conditions. A good model of skin appearance will be a prerequisite for manufacturing convincing skin. The last part of the project will be dedicated to the actual manufacturing of facial soft tissue prostheses (3D skin), in collaboration with Julian Yates, a Professor of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at The University of Manchester.


What are the advantages of using 3D printing in the future and how could we use it?

I cannot comment on general advantages of 3D printing since I am not an expert. For our application- printing of 3D skin - the advantages are potentially enormous in the area of skin prostheses. The methods developed in the course of this project will also be beneficial for the detection of skin cancer.


What in your opinion are the prospects for the application of this method?

There are numerous applications for our innovative 3D manufacturing method, including:

Healthcare provision for general population: In medicine, skin appearance is a vital factor in surgical/prosthetic reconstruction, medical make-up/tattooing, disease diagnosis (e.g. skin cancer) and evaluation of phototherapy.

Individualised health care: With the knowledge gained in this project the skin manufacturing processes (traditional or new) can be tailored to individual patients to allow for colour shifts that occur during the production of facial prostheses. Quantitative colour models will allow clinicians to understand and improve predictions of colour changes that occur in donor tissues following reconstructive procedures. It may also allow for tissue selection based of predictive colour/aesthetic outcomes rather than solely on operator preference or “ease of harvest”. These could be tailored to patient specific requirements and outcomes.

Cosmetic Industry: The aesthetic relevance of skin appearance has led to an enormous investment in skin research, mostly for make-up development and cosmetic surgery. Accurate models of skin appearance, particularly under a change in ambient illumination, is vital for the production of skin make-up and will therefore support the UK economy.

Entertainment industry: The advent of new lighting technologies, LEDs, and image capture/projection systems generates new challenges for rendering skin on displays and this project will help developers in the entertainment industry to improve the rendering of human faces.


Interview by Marta Łucka


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