The Skin I Live In: the science of synthetic skin

With the Bafta Film Awards only a week away, I thought I’d look at one of the nominees, The Skin I Live In, and how its story about a scientist incorporating animal cells into human skin is far from being just science fiction.

Without giving too much away, The Skin I live In, which is up for the Best foreign language film gong at the ceremony on Sunday February 12, centres around a plastic surgeon who creates burn-proof, incredibly-strong artificial skin using genes from pigs, which he has been secretly testing on a human subject held captive in his house.

The film, which is excellent by the way, and stars Antonio Banderas at his best as the obsessive scientist Dr Robert Ledgard, is fascinating for all kinds of reasons, suggesting questions about the nature of identity and allusions to Dr Frankenstein.
However, it is Dr Ledgard’s use of animal genes to improve the human body which I found one of the most interesting aspects. Using trans-species biology is, of course, very real – synthetic skin incorporating animal cells has been used on humans for years.
The first synthetically-produced human skin was developed back in 1980 by Dr John Burke and Dr Ioannis Yannas, who used cells from cow tendons and shark cartilage, together with plastics, to create an artificial skin, known as Integra, to treat burn victims.
It became the first commercially reproducible synthetic human skin, and was created by making two layers of polymers, one synthetic silicone sheet and the other organic, which was a kind of scaffolding made from the molecular material in cow tendons and shark cartilage.
Healthy skin cells taken from other parts of the patient’s body then grew into the scaffolding, and the cow and shark cells were absorbed by the body. When the silicone layer was peeled off, the burned area of skin healed.

More recently, spider silk (that substance bewitching scientists the world over because of its impressive strength, making it suitable for a whole host of applications) has also been used in a bid to create stronger skin, with researchers at the Hannover Medical School in Germany using spider silk fibres to develop a stronger scaffold for skin regeneration.

As for making burn-resistant skin using pig cells, which is the goal of Antonio Banderas’ scientist in The Skin I Live In, Dr Yannas has said he didn’t believe that using pig tissue or pig genes could create fire-resistant skin because animal genes are similar to human genes in terms of how they are affected by fire – i.e. they burn too.
Being able to resist burns would clearly be a very useful property for skin to have. But take it a step further – how about having skin that was bullet-proof?
It seems that researchers have been able to pull off this feat using, yes you’ve guessed it, spider silk to reinforce human skin cells so that it can resist a speeding object without being pierced.
The video below shows the synthetic skin cushioning a bullet fired a half speed – the only snag is that the bullet pierces the skin when it is shot at full speed.

The team of researchers created the bioengineered skin using transgenic goats, or spider-goats for those of you who saw the recent Horizon documentary presented by Adam Rutherford on the subject of synthetic biology.

With synthetic biology coming on leaps and bounds as it continues to push the boundaries of what we thought possible, the skin we live in right now may feel very different in the decades to come.

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© Melanie Hall 2017