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Stem Cell Breakthrough Grants Terminators and Replicants Artificial Skin

What do Terminators, Replicants and Surrogates have in common? They’re all what Blade Runner‘s Captain Bryant would call “skin jobs.” And whether they’re killing humans, getting killed by humans or living life for humans, most movie robots benefit from that scifi staple, the artificial epidermis. Without it, Cherry 2000 wouldn’t look like the perfect girlfriend and Bicentennial Man wouldn’t look like Robin Williams. So far, real-life robots with skin jobs aren’t that convincing: Their synthetic cover blows their cover. But thanks to recent breakthroughs, they may soon look and feel all too human.

Growing skin isn’t anything new. For years, patients with serious burns have benefited from a technique that grows new skin in the laboratory using their own cells or, more recently, adult stem cells extracted from the roots of their hair. But scientists from the I-Stem Institute have announced a breakthrough: They succeeded in recreating a whole epidermis from human embryonic stem cells. And by doing so they found a way for human skin to be made without the need to harvest cells from the recipient, which is especially helpful if the recipient is a robot sent from the future to kill John Connor.

Not surprisingly, the French scientists are denying they created the artificial skin to enhance artificial intelligence. Their focus, they claim, is to help cover burn victims waiting for permanent skin grafts that can take three weeks or more to develop. “What our findings can provide is a way to cover the burns during those three weeks with skin epidermis … produced in that factory and sent to the physician at the moment they receive a severely burned patient,” says Marc Peschanski, research director at I-Stem. When he starts talking about curing “Methuselah Syndrome,” that’s when we’ll know its time to hire Blade Runners.

Developing human skin for ‘bots is one thing — but how do you make it replicable on a large scale? German automation, of course. Scientists at Germany’s Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft Institute have developed the first fully-automated system to produce artificial skin, which will be commercially available next year and could make human intervention in the process redundant: Machines monitor the vats the skin grows in, guide the blade that cuts them free and test the final product to keep it free from infection. It’s an “almost perfect copy of the human skin,” says Professor Heike Mertsching, a coordinator working on the project. Sounds to me like tomorrow’s Terminators are mass producing their future skin today, though the Governator might have something to say about Austrians being shut out of the industry.

If everything goes as planned, the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft Institute will introduce another system capable of producing skin with blood vessels in it as early as 2013. In addition to helping cosmetic pharmaceutical companies to test new products, it could give people with damaged tissue the opportunity to feel good in a new layer of affordable skin. But I suspect it will also be harnessed by emerging companies with names like Cyberdyne Systems and The Tryell Corporation for their own nefarious purposes.

Maybe it’s time we start working on a Voight-Kampff test to tell who is human, and who is just bio-engineered to look that way.

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