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Hulk-green artificial skin developed from algae

A scientist in Chile has harnessed algae to create a plant-based artificial skin.

Professor Tomas Egana, from the Institute of Biological Engineering at Santiago's Catholic University of Chile, came up with the green-coloured artificial skin that his colleagues have affectionately dubbed "hulk" after animated super-hero character The Incredible Hulk.

The main substance of this skin is microalgae - microscopic algae found in freshwater and marine systems. Egana came up with the idea of using plants as a way around a major problem in developing artificial skin for the body. Artificial skin cannot produce oxygen but Egana's plant-based solution uses photosynthesis to do so.

"What we're basically doing is to incorporate micro-algae which are like microscopic plants into different types of materials. For example, when we apply artificial skin what we have is the characteristics of plants which means when it is lit up it can produce oxygen. Also, these micro-algae can be genetically modified so that in addition to producing oxygen they will produce different factors, for example antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and pro-regenerative molecules. So, we are going to have material which is completely artificial and still, which is a structure that has material that is alive and which will produce oxygen and which will produce pro-regenerative molecules," he said.

Common artificial skin does not contain the blood vessels needed for it to be successfully transplanted onto a human body. The lack of blood vessels mean it cannot pass through oxygen.

But the algae-based skin solution breathes by taking a different approach to oxygenation.

"One of the biggest problems with tissue engineering, of making an artificial organ is how we are going to oxygenate it. For example, we make a very large artificial organ. The question is how it will be oxygenated from the inside. And the other thing that happens as well is when we implant these materials in the body of the patient in many cases, in the majority of cases it is not vascularised, that is to say there is no blood coming in, the body is not oxygenated. So the question is how the skin will live in the body if it does not have blood vessels. And what we're doing is that the material, the organ or the tissue is no longer oxygenated with blood but it will be oxygenated through the process of photosynthesis," he added.

According to predictions, the algae in the artificial skin should die in about ten days, which could provide enough time for it to be better incorporated into the body and for the green colour to fade away.

Egana believes that his algae solution could be used in other medical procedures such as in treating open wounds and tumours.

"The option that I gave you of artificial skin is one of many examples. Oxygen is a very important molecule for many processes. There are a lot of diseases which are concerned precisely with the lack of oxygen. And what we are really thinking of doing is to apply this same technology to a lot of diseases such as transplants, the treatment of tumours, the regeneration of other types of wounds. And this is a problem that the whole world has, not just a problem in Chile," he said.

Plastic surgeon Dr Heidi Debels, from the Free University of Belgium, said using algae is "a very creative solution to the most common problem in skin regeneration."

She added that putting artificial skin -- usually loaded with living cells -- on a wound increases the risk that this skin will die because these cells need oxygen and nutrients.

"By adding algae to produce oxygen the cells might survive better until the skin is revascularized. This technique might allow researchers to use even thicker artificial skin because it would still survive," Debels told Reuters.

Egana believes that in some instances his algae-based solution could even help patients avoid amputation.

"There are many wounds that because they are not able to produce oxygen through the body they do not heal, they are chronic ulcers. They are wounds which for many years are open and in many cases end up being amputated. The idea that we have is that oxygen does not come through the blood vessels but through the material, the very material is what produced it. In this way, wounds that didn't heal now can. This means that for example people can go back to work which an amputation would have prevented them from doing," added Egana.

Animal-testing trials with the green artificial skin have proven a success and now investigators are looking to human trials with hospitals in 2017. — Reuters