3D bioprinter revolutionises skin research

A new piece of technology at the University of Plymouth is helping researchers to develop a working skin substitute – which is able to mimic functional human skin. 

The 3D bioprinter will enable Dr Bing Hu and his team to test whether some of the current coastal plants in Cornwall could have powerful skin-care applications. 

Dr Hu, Associate Professor in Oral and Dental Health Research in the University’s Peninsula Dental School, is being supported by the Agri-tech Cornwall Project to pursue his vision working alongside Cornish small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and growers.

Agri-tech Cornwall is a three-year, £10 million initiative part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund, with match-funding from Cornwall Council.

Dr Hu explained:
"Major cosmetic brands have integrated seaweed and coastal plant extracts into high-end products. However in Cornwall, high-value coastal plants and seaweed extracts for cosmetics use are still underdeveloped due to lack of relevant research."

Isles of Scilly - Oceanography and Coastal Processes


Although Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly have a long tradition of growing high value speciality crops and plants, advances in growing technology have removed much of Cornwall’s advantage of early cropping seasons which were once very lucrative. If the project can prove that some of these native Cornish coastal plants and seaweeds can be successfully incorporated into new skincare treatments, it could increase the value of the crops that if grown by Cornish growers could help improve incomes.

The sector is, Dr Hu says, only at “very preliminary stages.” There are big gaps in our understanding and the precise ways in which such ‘marine’ products aid the skin still largely unknown. He says:

“But the proximity to the sea of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, combined with the unique climate of the area, means certain types of plants have always thrived here – and a range of them could have as yet-untapped potential.”

Many plants now native to and thriving in Cornwall were initially brought in by 18th and 19th century plant hunters from all over the globe, and have adapted to and thrived in the Cornish climate. Chinese traditional medicines already incorporate some of the plants that grow wild in hedgerows and cliff faces in Cornwall. If cultivated, these could provide a lucrative asset.

The cutting-edge 3D bioprinting technology replicates skin with huge degrees of reality, then creates movement, so yielding continuous and real-time insights into tissue and cellular ‘events’, thus giving insights into the ageing process and allowing different materials’ anti-wrinkling effectiveness to be tested.

In itself, the 3D printing could spin out into new opportunities, potentially becoming a globally used, standardised “Organ-on-a-Chip” model for simulating human skin for testing in the cosmetics and health sectors. It is hoped that one day, it could even print live skin.

PhD student Charlotte Illsley, who is working on the project, said: 

“Skin is the largest organ in the body accounting for around 15 per cent of adult body weight. It is made up of three layers – epidermis, dermis and hypodermis with each component performing specialist functions. If any of these components malfunction, it usually results in undesirable conditions from a rash to cellulitis or even cancer. 

“The development of skin equivalent systems allow for the study of wound healing and regeneration alongside drug delivery and skin care testing. There is currently a massive market for skin-engineered substitutes, but to the best of our knowledge there is currently no skin model that is able to mimic all aspects of the skin. The 3D bioprinter is a great start to helping us on the long road of testing to enable this to happen by combining with an Organ-on-a-Chip skin platform that is currently under development in our school.”

Dr Bing Hu, who is running the project within the University’s Institute of Translational and Stratified Medicine (ITSMed) continued: 

“We will use this skin substitute as a platform for testing products from a number of SMEs in Cornwall, to help develop and screen their products for anti-aging properties that could be used for the UV protection of skin and curing irritating conditions such as dermatitis. The demand for natural, extracts-based, organic cosmetics and personal care is very much growing and we’d like to see Cornish SMEs capitalise on that market. At present, worldwide, there is still a long way to go in terms of establishing exactly how these ingredients work and there is an urgent need to understand more about – and prove – the biological function of Cornish seaweeds, coastal plants and sea salt on human skin. Such proof of biological functioning is essential if SMEs and growers in West Country businesses are to take on the international giants.”

Professor Christopher Tredwin, Head of Peninsula Dental School, concluded: 

“It’s fantastic that Peninsula Dental School is collaborating with Cornish businesses to help identify how local resources could help to bring more governmental and private investments to the region. In addition to this work, the 3D bioprinter technique could be further transmitted into the other research fields in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry – which is a very exciting prospect.”

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