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Synthetic Skin -

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Andrew Reid

I couldn't imagine the pain I was in, no, from head to toe no, not at all when you're in the
chefing game your nerve endings get damaged naturally just by picking up hot things all the time.
But nothing could prepare me for what I went through, no.

NARRATION

In mid 2008, former chef Andrew Reid barely survived a house fire.

Maryanne Demasi

Andrew suffered burns to 60 per cent of his body he was in an induced coma for two weeks, spent
seven weeks in intensive care. All up, he was in hospital for nine months.

Andrew Reid

I wasn't able to walk, I had calcification in the arms which meant my arms were stiff as boards. I
was getting fed through a feeding tube, I had a tracheotomy, There was a lot of things I feared.
There was the emotion of how the scars were going to look, how people were going to react to me. I
couldn't, I couldn't begin to tell you how many things were running through my mind.

NARRATION

So far Andrew has undergone more than 20 operations. But current treatments for full thickness,
large burns have major limitations the affected areas never again look, feel or function like
normal skin.

Prof Peter Maitz

they can't sweat in areas that are skin grafted. They can't properly regulate their temperature,
the sensation is very altered in these areas, it always feels, and also looks foreign, half numb.

Prof Tony Weiss

So for example with a hand, imagine a burn that occurs over here, contractions occur with the
tissue and so it's very hard then to try and make use of that hand. So how do you pick up a fork,
how do you use a knife, It's very hard to try and imagine how someone's life gets affected like
that.

NARRATION

Current treatments such as skin grafts and so called "spray on skin" are very effective at sealing
the wound replacing the damaged top layer of the skin, known as the epidermis. However for skin to
function normally, it's crucial to repair the dermis, that deeper layer of the skin which provides
elasticity. The problem is there is no effective replacement for the dermis.

Maryanne Demasi

Patients with severe burns need a new treatment, something that will help rebuild their own skin,
and this could be the breakthrough that delivers it.

Prof Tony Weiss

So what we've been able to do with this technology has been to construct material that looks a bit
like a kind of flat sheet or sponge material that can be used to replace those deep damaged
components of skin.

NARRATION

It's known as 3D Replacement Skin and is being developed by Professor Tony Weiss at the University
of Sydney.

Maryanne Demasi

It certainly feels nice and soft.

Prof Tony Weiss

It's soft because it's the same natural material elastin that's found in newborn skin. So what
happens is the burns injury would involve removing the section that's been burnt and then what
you're left with basically is a section that used to contain skin. And this material would come
along, it'll be laid across that surface, and suddenly converts the site from what used to be a
really severe burn that's gone all the way through to the upper, middle, lower layers to one that's
effectively missing just the upper most layer of skin.

NARRATION

Creating the material required a revolutionary new approach. Professor Weiss not only developed an
entirely synthetic form of our skin's natural elastin, he also developed an ingenious way of
spinning it into a matrix of fibres.

Prof Tony Weiss

A very fine beam of what's initially liquid comes out through the side and then as it evaporates
we're left with simply, with this very fine thread hitting the target at the other end.

Maryanne Demasi

So it gradually builds and builds over time?

Prof Tony Weiss

Exactly and as it does so we end up with this extraordinary kind of mesh of material where the
thickness of each of these fibres resembles the thickness of fibres found in natural skin.

Maryanne Demasi

And so in time the, the person's own blood vessels and cells will just find their way through the
crevasses of, of this material?

Prof Tony Weiss

That's correct. Our tests thus far show that not only do the human cells grow through this
material, but in other tests we are able to show the blood vessels pass through this material as
well.

NARRATION

After 15 years developing this biological scaffold, Professor Weiss believes clinical trials could
begin within three years.

Prof Tony Weiss

At this stage every test we've done on material suggests that material behaves well. And we've done
a lot of tests on this.

The benefit we have is that we have not simply made an approximation of what is required in nature
but we used the same building block nature provides.

Prof Peter Maitz

Whilst it maybe some time off, this will be the ultimate solution to the problem burns and not only
burns I see application in chronic wounds, application for scar reconstruction. There are a lot of
people who will benefit eventually from something like a, a biological skin equivalent.

NARRATION

After countless operations, Andrew is happy to wait for proof that it works before he'd contemplate
going under the knife yet again.

Andrew Reid

To see how does it sweat, how do the hair follicles come back, what does it look like, is the
scarring any different than what mine is now, I'm interesting in all of those things. But I think
it sounds exciting and it sounds like it could help a lot of people.

Topics: Health

Reporter: Dr Maryanne Demasi

Producer: Adam Collins

Researcher: Roslyn Lawrence

Camera: Kevin May

Daniel Shaw

Sound: Guenter Ericoli

Steve Ravich

Richard McDermott

Editor: Vaughan Smith

Chris Spurr

Related Info

Professor Anthony Weiss profile

Professor Peter Maitz profile

Story Contacts

Professor Anthony Weiss

Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biotechnology

School of Molecular Bioscience

The University of Sydney

Prof Peter K M Maitz, AM MD FRACS