Background/purpose: Treatment of several congenital anomalies is frequently hindered by lack of enough tissue for surgical reconstruction in the neonatal period. The purposes of this study were (1) introduction of a novel concept in perinatal surgery, involving minimally invasive harvest of fetal tissue, which is then processed through tissue engineering techniques in vitro while pregnancy is allowed to continue, so that, at delivery, the newborn can benefit from having autologous, expanded tissue promptly available for surgical implantation at birth; (2) analysis of the progress of an engineered fetal skin graft with time, after implantation in the neonate; and (3) study of the effects of current tissue engineering techniques on fetal keratinocytes and fetal dermal fibroblasts.
Methods: Ten 90- to 95-day-gestation fetal lambs underwent surgical creation of two large paramedian excisional skin defects on the posterior body wall. Subsequently, fetal skin specimens no larger than 1.5 x 1.5 cm were videofetoscopically harvested. Fetal keratinocytes and dermal fibroblasts were then separately cultivated and expanded in vitro for 45 to 50 days, resulting in a total of approximately 250 to 300 million cells. Seven to 10 days before fetal delivery, all cells were seeded in two layers on a 16 to 20-cm2, 3-mm thick biodegradable polyglycolic acid polymer matrix. One to 4 days after delivery, the autologous engineered skin was implanted over one of two previously created skin defects. The second skin defect region received an absorbable polymer scaffold without cells as a control. If necessary, the original skin wounds were further amplified before implantation. Each animal provided at least one time-point for histological analysis of both types of repair through excisional biopsies performed at weekly intervals, up to 8 weeks postimplantation. Normal skin specimens were also used as controls.
Results: Fetal and neonatal survival rates were 100%. Based on previous postnatal skin engineering studies, fetal dermal fibroblasts multiplied significantly faster in vitro (approximately fivefold) than expected. Fetal keratinocytes multiplied at expected postnatal rates. The engineered grafts induced faster epithelization of the wound (partial at 1 week and complete between 2 and 3 weeks postoperatively) than did the acellular ones (partial at 3 weeks and complete between 3 and 4 weeks postoperatively). Analysis of skin architecture showed a higher level of epidermal organization and less dermal scarring in the wounds that received the engineered, cell-implanted polymer scaffold.
Conclusions: (1) Videofetoscopically assisted fetal tissue engineering is a viable method for obtaining expanded autologous tissue for prompt surgical reconstruction at birth. (2) Fetal skin can be expanded and engineered in vitro at faster rates than expected postnatally, with current tissue engineering techniques. (3) Engineered autologous fetal skin induces a faster and more organized healing of neonatal skin defects than that observed with second intention. This concept may prove useful for the treatment of certain human neonatal conditions such as giant neoplasias, ectopia cordis, and other body wall defects.