Army Scientist Uses Seed Money Grant to Launch Skin Printing Research

By Brian FeeneyMay 16, 2024

Army Scientist Uses Seed Money Grant to Launch Skin Printing Research
DEVCOM Chemical Biological Center biologist Priscilla Lee evaluates 3D-printed human dermal fibroblasts on plate designed to hold bioprinted skin. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Ellie White) VIEW ORIGINAL

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. — Skin. It is the largest organ in the human body and the first line of defense against chemical agents. With that in mind, Priscilla Lee, a U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Chemical Biological Center bioengineering researcher wanted to see if skin could be 3D printed for research purposes.

She knew she needed to find a research partner with the right equipment and prior experience in this highly specialized area. That is where serendipity, and keeping up with the news came in. “My division chief, Dr. Kyle Glover, read an article in The Wall Street Journal about how researchers at the University of Delaware were 3D-printing lung cells,” Lee said. As a University of Delaware alumnus, Glover arranged for Lee to meet Dr. April Kloxin and Dr. Cathy Fromen, both professors, and Ph.D. candidate Bree Huntington, all from the university’s chemical and biomolecular engineering department.

Inspired by the visit, Lee applied for a seedling grant under DEVCOM CBC’s QUEST Program which stands for "Quick Empowerment leads to Successful Tomorrows." Projects of any size from $5,000 to $100,000 that are tied to the Center’s mission are considered. Applicants get ten minutes to pitch their idea before members of the Center’s Innovation Council followed by five minutes for questions.

Impressed by the potential value of her research idea, the council awarded Lee a $40,000 grant. With the money in hand, Kloxin and Huntington eagerly agreed to collaborate on research to 3D print skin. DEVCOM CBC’s Technology Transfer Office started a joint work statement for a cooperative research and development agreement, or CRADA for short, with the University of Delaware.

The University of Delaware used a highly advanced 3D printer known as a Rastrum made by Inventia Life Science. They taught Lee how to use the printer and how to blend the ingredients that go in the printer. They are dermal fibroblasts that form the cellular architecture, much like using two-by-fours to frame a house, plus a bio-anchor material called bioink that fixes the cellular material inside that framing, followed by cell simulants provided by a commercial vendor.

The result was not actual human skin, but a small sheet of tissue with many skin-like characteristics. When exposed to chemical agent, this sheet can provide valuable research results. Lee brought these skin models to the DEVCOM CBC research campus at Aberdeen Proving Ground where they could be exposed to mustard agent to closely observe and measure its actual blistering effect at the cellular level. Lee plans on comparing her findings from this project with the large repository of historical exposure data at the Center using actual skin data from the 1940s and 1950s.

With these results she has performed what the QUEST Program was created to do, allow Center scientists with a good idea to use seed money to achieve a proof of concept. Her results also led to her receiving more internal funding for researching 3D printing of skin and eyes in collaboration with other Center scientists and engineers.

In addition, she has received funding from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency to incorporate immune cells into bioprinted skin and lung models, which continues the collaboration with the University of Delaware. She also plans to explore opportunities for collaboration with Wake Forest University, a long-time Center partner in organ-on-a-chip research. “I am so happy to see how starting with a research budget of $40,000 could lead to all this further research with all these great research partners,” Lee said.


U.S. Army Futures Command (AFC) and U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM.)

AFC provides Army modernization solutions (integrated concepts, organizational designs, and technologies) in order to allow the Joint Force, employing Army capabilities, to achieve overmatch in the future operation environment. DEVCOM is a major subordinate command of AFC. DEVCOM leads in the discovery, development, and delivery of technology-based capabilities to enable Soldiers to win our nation’s wars and come home safely. DEVCOM CBC is the Army’s principal research and development center for chemical and biological defense technology, engineering, and field operations. DEVCOM CBC is headquartered at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.