If a new bioprinter developed in Spain lives up to the hype, skin grafts taken from a person's own body may become a thing of the past. Created by a team at Carlos III University of Madrid, the machine is reportedly capable of 3D-printing sheets of functional human skin for use in research … or for transplants.

While the details of how it works are being kept under wraps, the bioprinter is claimed to use bio-inks made up of plasma, proteins, skin cells and other biological components. A computer is used to selectively deposit these bio-inks on a print bed, in a precise manner.

"Knowing how to mix the biological components, in what conditions to work with them so that the cells don't deteriorate, and how to correctly deposit the product is critical to the system," says researcher Juan Francisco del Cañizo.

The skin produced by the printer consists of an outer layer – the epidermis – which provides protection against the elements, along with a thicker and deeper layer – the dermis – which is made up of fibroblasts that produce collagen. Collagen, in turn, gives the skin its elasticity and mechanical strength.

If the skin is being made for research purposes (such as the testing of cosmetics or pharmaceuticals), any human skin cells can be used. If it's being made for transplant, however, then the patient's own cells will be required. A sufficient number of them have to first be grown in a lab, in a process that takes approximately two weeks. After that, the actual printing takes one to two days.

The university has partnered with bioengineering firm BioDan Group, to commercialize the technology. A paper on the research was recently posted in the online edition of the journal Biofabrication.

Researchers at the University of Toronto are also developing a bioprinter that produces skin using the patient's own cells.