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Here is the very first functional robot covered with “living” skin!

This artificial limb covered with “living” artificial skin approximates human skin and can even regenerate. Did someone say Wolverine?

There was a time when the term “prosthesis” meant at best a vulgar wooden leg. But today, the design of these devices and all other artificial appendages is a fascinating discipline, at the frontier of mechanical engineering, robotics, materials science and medicine. Today there are highly advanced prostheses and other mechanical limbs that are both technologically valuable and useful in orthopedic medicine and industry.

On the other hand, the majority of these machines suffer from the same problem: the absence of a coating comparable to the skin. This lack prevents them from creating visual illusions in the case of human prostheses. This is also of considerable importance in purely functional terms. But this constraint could partially be lifted thanks to the work of a team from the University of Tokyo; they managed to grow artificial skin made from human cells directly on a robotic finger!

A living, flexible and relatively strong artificial tissue

Initially, this peel comes in the form of a gelatinous solution that contains two important ingredients. The first is the collagen, the most abundant protein in the animal kingdom. It is found in the bones, cartilage or connective tissues that support, bind and separate the different structures of the body. Here it is used in the form of a hydrogel which serves as a matrix for this artificial tissue.

They then added fibroblasts humans; these are cells that reside in the dermis (the underlying part of the skin). It is to them that our skin owes a large part of its mechanical properties. Once the finger was molded, this gel contracted to form a coherent surface. This was seeded with keratinocytes. These are other skin cells, but found this time in theepidermis, the tougher outer part of the skin. This layer made it possible to waterproof the finger and give it a more natural texture.

The researchers then moved on to the dynamic phase of the test. Their synthetic skin has proven to be sufficiently resistant and flexible to accompany all the movements of the finger without flinching. “We are surprised that the skin adheres so well to the surface of the robot”, explain the researchers.

On the other hand, it is still quite fragile compared to real human skin. And since it is a tissue composed of living cells, it must be constantly supplied with nutrients. Otherwise, the cells will inevitably end up withering away.

A concrete interest in the industry…

But these limits do not prevent this work from being very interesting. It is above all a rather impressive proof of concept. Because if artificial skins are already commonly used in certain laboratories, particularly in the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries, it is much rarer on robots.

In fact, this is the first time that such an artificial living tissue has been shown to be able to conform so well to a robotic structure. And this approach could have huge benefits in the industry. This could make it possible to produce a new type of manipulator robot with mechanical properties fairly close to those of the human hand. What se pick up potentially fragile, soft or deformable objects which require a firm but delicate grip; a complicated combination to find in standard manipulators.

And this tissue made up of living cells has another rather interesting advantage for the industry: it is able to regenerate ! If it is damaged, just apply a collagen plaster that gradually turns into skin to heal the wound. And this is still only the beginning.

…but also in medicine and research

Eventually, the researchers plan to integrate a whole host of biological structures found in humans. They mention in particular the nails, the sweat glands, or the hair follicles from which the hair emerges. They even refer to nerve cells; their inclusion could make this fabric react to contact and pressure! At this stage, we may even begin to consider using this technique to develop a new generation of more realistic prostheses.

Finally, these artificial fabrics could also be very useful for researchers from all walks of life. This would allow conduct trials of pharmacological or cosmetic products on a tissue very close to human skin, which would, among other things, avoid clinical trials on animals.

The text of the study is available ici.

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