Looking for a place to toss your old inkjet printers? A team of scientists working to create human tissue may have a good use for them. Ten –year-old inkjets, they say, are perfectly suited to create sheets of human skin and other tissue that one day may help burn victims and even manufacture organs.

Vladimir Mironov, director of the Shared Tissue Engineering Laboratory at the Medical University of South Carolina, is one of the scientists who has rigged HP and Canon inkjet printers to shoot out proteins instead of ink, and to capture tissue on specialised gel instead of paper. Older printers work well because their spray nozzles have larger holes and are less likely to damage fragile cells.

The "skin printing" research, although in early stages, aims to replace the current skin-graft method, which can lead to postoperative complications, says Anthony Atala, a researcher at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. Today, burn victims receive skin grafts from unburned parts of their body or from skin tissue artificially grown in a lab. But trouble can arise, particularly when the body rejects grafts that don't exactly replicate human tissue. Also, grafted skin can tighten over time, causing discomfort and itching.

Skin made from inkjet printers may come closer to replicating human tissue, Atala says, because it is created using skin-tissue cells. While skin printing begins with the same process of cultivating cells used in skin grafting, Atala says that the printers create skin more efficiently. "We're seeing a better-quality skin that will cover more area," he says. "The quality of the tissue is higher."

Thomas Boland, an assistant bioengineering professor at Clemson University and another researcher involved in the project, says he came up with the idea one day when overseeing students who had become frustrated with earlier research trying to "stamp" skin cells. "I went to the lab to look around and saw an unused inkjet printer sitting there in the lab. I thought, 'Why not use that?'"

Atala and Boland say the technology could be used clinically in a few years for burn injuries, accidents, and extra skin coverage. After that, the researchers hope they can create other types of organs and even body parts using inkjet printers. If they are successful, the possibilities are nearly limitless. Printed organs could be created for use in transplants and for drug testing and the technique could even allow plastic surgeons to reproduce Nicole Kidman's nose, for example (if she were to donate her cells).

Sound futuristic? Those types of cosmetic and transplant applications probably are, says Atala. "As you get into more complex tissues, you need more ingredients, and we're still working on that."