The Scar Free Foundation pioneering research into 3D Bioprinting

The Scar Free Foundation are thrilled to formally launch a three-year £2.5 million plus programme of regenerative research at Swansea University.

The programme is focussed on the development of 3D ‘bioprinted’ facial cartilage (e.g. ears and noses) using human cells and plant based materials for future treatment of people who are either born without body parts, or live with facial scarring as a result of burns, trauma or cancer. The programme will also examine the impact of facial scarring on mental health by analysing data from the world’s largest cohort of people living with this type of visible difference.

Patients living with loss of ears/noses have told researchers that existing plastic prostheses didn’t feel ‘part of them’ and would prefer that their own tissue is used for reconstruction. This programme will address this problem by creating a custom ‘cartilage’ scaffold which the patient’s own stem cells grow onto, to avoid the need to take cartilage from elsewhere in the body (which would otherwise lead to painful surgery and further scarring).

“It’s fantastic that this research is taking place and what we are going to do is amazing. This new research – bioprinting ear and nose cartilage made from the patient’s own cells – would have made a big difference to me.

There simply wasn’t the research or capability at the time to rebuild my ears – I literally had to watch them fall off. This research also avoids the need for skin grafts taken from other parts of the body – a process which itself can be very painful and leaves behind new scars.”

Simon Weston CBE, Lead Ambassador for The Scar Free Foundation

One in 100 people in the UK have a significant facial difference, and this can have a profound effect on the mental health of patients. Supporting research which alleviates the physical and psychological burden of scarring is at the heart of the scar free research strategy, and this programme of work is an important and innovative step towards delivering The Scar Free Foundation’s aims.

The research will be led by Professor Iain Whitaker – the only professor of plastic surgery in Wales – Chair of Plastic Surgery at Swansea University Medical School and Surgical Specialty Lead for Health and Care Research Wales. The pioneering programme will take the world class 3D BIO-FACE research to the next stage – developing 3D bioprinted facial cartilage using human cartilage specific stem/progenitor cells and nanocellulose (derived from plants) as a ‘bioink’ for facial reconstruction. This new programme builds on an initial study (supported by the Royal College of Surgeons) based on the Medical Research Council-funded PhD work of Ms Zita Jessop, now a Senior Lecturer in the team, and other previous post doctoral researchers. Subsequent PhD work was carried out by Mr Tom Jovic, funded by Action Medical Research and Microtia UK. The project will include scientific studies to determine the ideal combination of cells to grow new cartilage, optimise nanocellulose bioinks for 3D bioprinting patient-specific cartilage constructs and show that they are safe, non-toxic and well tolerated by the immune system. This will lead to human clinical trials for facial reconstruction.

On 6 July, The Scar Free Foundation held a Zoom event for our Ambassadors to meet with Professor Iain Whitaker and learn about the pioneering work that is taking place. The ‘Meet the Researcher’ events also give researchers a greater insight into the issues faced by those living with a scar, helping them to focus their research priorities. The virtual room was full of engaged Ambassadors who asked thoughtful, and thought-provoking questions on the 3D-Bioface project.

“I can’t express in words how excited I am about Iain’s research and the possibilities for so many people with facial scarring.

Jaco Nel, Ambassador for The Scar Free Foundation