They create the first robotic finger with living skin made of human cells

They create the first robotic finger with living skin made of human cells

Example of how the device is able to bend easily. / Takeuchi et al.

Science | robotics

The self-healing device is intended to aid medical research on deep wounds and burns

Soft as a baby's and with the ability to heal itself. This is the living skin made of human cells with which a group of scientists from the University of Tokyo have covered a three-jointed robotic finger. Its goal is to aid medical research on skin damage, such as deep wounds and burns, and to advance the use of robots in task automation in advanced manufacturing industries.

The advance, presented this Thursday in the magazine
Matter, is quite a milestone, since giving humanoid robots an appearance more similar to ours is a goal that researchers have been pursuing for many years. Silicone had been tried, but the success has been limited and the result unnatural, since the greatest difficulty lies in the fabrics adapting to dynamic objects with irregular surfaces. Instead, the synthetic skin developed by scientists in Japan, the country where humanoid robots are most developed, has relied on ingredients from human skin to achieve a much more realistic result.

Specifically, this device is created with tissues manufactured 'in vitro' with various types of living cells, such as fibroblasts and keratinocytes; and collagen-based hydrogels, forming three-dimensional networks, which can mimic the skin's unique characteristics, such as appearance and internal structure, thus achieving smooth touch and waterproof and self-healing capacity. In total, it takes 24 days to grow it, and it has taken scientists two years to come up with the exact recipe.

After being intentionally severed, the three-jointed toe is healed in cell culture medium with the help of a collagen bandage. /

Takeuchi et al.

The procedure consisted of two main steps. First, the construction of an equivalent of the dermis (middle layer of the skin) that covered the robotic finger with a solution of collagen and human dermal fibroblasts. And then, on this, the construction of an epidermis (superficial layer of the skin) from human keratinocytes, the predominant cells (80%-90%) of the epidermis. “By covering a robotic finger with the equivalent of skin, we demonstrate the possibility of not only reconstructing the visual texture of skin, but also replicating the unique capabilities of living organisms using biomaterials. We believe that these results will create a new paradigm for the development of biohybrid robots”, the authors maintain in their study.

future challenges

In the long term, the idea is to add other types of cells, giving these devices the ability to feel as we do. “In the future, we will develop more advanced versions by replicating some of the organs found in the skin, such as sensory cells, hair follicles, sweat glands, and nails. In addition, we would like to try to coat larger structures," said Takeuchi.

Illustration showing the process of cutting and healing the robotic finger (A), its anchoring structure (B), and the manufacturing process (C). /


Among the challenges they will have to face are longevity and functionalization of the skin. For example, the model developed in the study cannot survive in the air for a long time because it does not withstand dry environments well. To prevent desiccation, the integration of channels within and below the artificial dermis to mimic sweating is a future line of research that they intend to pursue. Also, scientists are not satisfied with the resistance of the created device, which is much weaker than natural skin.

Given that this is nascent research, and taking into account the many challenges that remain to be solved, we will still have to wait a few years to see a humanoid robot completely covered with living skin.

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