Band-Aids for Interstellar Travellers

Astronauts get burns, cuts, and scrapes too.


First, imagine a starship. Now, imagine you’re on it, cruising out to Alpha Centauri, or some distant speck of light in the great beyond. This starship has a great gym, and great lookout windows too. All is well with your trip until you get a nasty burn on your hand when you spill your Earl Grey tea. You rush to the infirmary, but you’re not too worried. You know the doc can 3-D print you a custom dressing that can significantly reduce the time it’ll take your burn to heal.

Imagined starships like these are filled with imagined technologies and medical advances, but in the case of this kind of wound dressings, it’s not so sci-fi. An Aurora, Colorado company called Sharklet Technologies has developed a clever dressing design that it believes could markedly improve the way we treat deep cuts and major burns.

I came across Sharklet’s wound-healing technology last fall at the fifth 100-Year Starship Symposium, held in Santa Clara, California. The symposium, organized and run by former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison, brings together scientists, engineers, business people, philosophers, and artists of a certain mindset to consider what it might take to build a spaceship to another star system, and to do it within the next century.

It was, no doubt, a gathering of enthusiasts. Predictably, some of the symposium presentations dealt with far-out ideas, thought experiments, and exploratory, early-stage research—the kind of stuff serious scholars and entrepreneurs might talk about in private, but rarely in public. For instance: how to build a mockup starship on Earth, how religion might evolve in space, which textiles and apparel might be best for interstellar travel, how to make relativistic propulsion systems, and how we might hunt for water-independent alien life.

As a science journalist with more than a decade of experience, I was skeptical. Scouring the program and listening to a few presentations I found a mix of philosophizing and hard data, mathematical hand waving and products-in-development. It wasn’t clear there’d be anything worth covering.

But one symposium session did catch my eye. Chelsea Magin, a product developer at Sharklet Technologies was presenting an alluringly titled talk called “3-D Printed Sharkskin for Enhanced Interstellar Wound Healing.” Who could ignore all of those buzzwords stuffed into a single sentence?

I was pleased to learn that the presentation was well grounded. “Much of space travel is about sustaining human life while we’re traveling,” says Magin, referring to space medicine in general. “Being able to 3-D print is a more sustainable way of doing it,” she says. “You’re not carrying around boxes and boxes of wound dressings.”

In fact, most problems in space and on ultra-long duration missions often boil down to issues of scarcity, adaptability, and efficient use of resources. Not too different, actually, from living well on Earth. Think about rural burn units, remote battlefields, and rural hospitals. Some “starship” technologies might actually have some real-world applications.

Sharklet’s wound dressings are made from a double-layered biodegradable material that can be printed into the shape of a specific gouge or cut, Magin explains. On the top layer are a series of ridges and valleys about two micrometers across. These features effectively direct the migration of healthy skin cells into the wound. The microscopic topology of the dressings are patterned after the same topology found in sharkskin, which keeps barnacles and algae from sticking—it’s a topology that whales and most boats don’t possess, and it’s what keeps a shark’s skin clean and free of so-called biofouling.

Magin says that the dressing design takes advantage of the natural impulse for skin cells to migrate. At the edges of a wound, skin cells receive biochemical signals that tell them they’re not fully surrounded by other skin cells, so they move in random directions until they are. If you’ve just cut yourself shaving, the cells don’t have much ground to cover, but a deeper gash is harder to traverse. This is where the patterns of sharkskin can help.

Magin’s team has mathematically designed the size and shape of the patterns and the composition of the material to best guide the randomly moving skin cells to where they need to be.

“The body’s natural reaction is to close itself off to the environment,” says Anthony Atala, the director of the Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine, a researcher not involved with Sharklet’s technologies. There’s a sort of race between skin cells that heal a wound and scar tissue, he says. When skin cells can’t make it there in time, cells called fibroblasts fill the gap—and that’s how scars form.

Sharklet’s approach of aiding cell migration with microchannels is a good one, Atala adds. “It’s an intense area of research as well as an area of promise because you’re providing that microstructure,” he says.

The dressings, literally called Sharkskin, have been run through lab tests in petri dishes and pre-clinical studies with animals. Over the course of the study, the researchers saw 64 percent more skin-cell migration in petri dishes. In animals, they saw a 31 percent improvement in the healing of those with the dressing than with those untreated. The findings will be published in a special thematic issue of the journal Experimental Biology and Medicine called “Immuno-engineering Materials.” Magin says the team is continuing preclinical animal trials and expects clinical trials in two to three years.

Sharklet is also developing technology that uses similar microscopic ridges on surfaces in high-touch locations, like door handles, countertops, and cell phones, to deter bacteria growth. One immediate application, and where Sharklet is currently putting efforts, is to reduce hospital-acquired infections from some of the more persistent bugs like MRSA. Good news for a starship too, which, as a closed system of people living in close proximity, could easily breed bacteria and infections.

Magin says that the company is mostly focused on earthbound problems and solutions, but has recently garnered interest from the aerospace industry in Colorado. What’s good for burn units, battlefields, and starships is also good for the International Space Station, and proposed missions to asteroids, the moon, and Mars.

Of course, no one knows what medical technology will fly on a starship or even if starships will fly at all. But from the 100 Year Starship Conference I learned that if you frame your fantasy starship problem just right, you might also be able to do some good here on Earth.