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A teenage acid attack victim poses in 2012 at her home in the Pakistani village of Khanwala. Acid attacks are among the worst forms of domestic violence in Pakistan, where researchers say they have now developed low-cost artificial skin that can help such victims. (Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty Images)

Researchers in Pakistan: We Can Manufacture Low-cost Artificial Skin

Development called ‘landmark achievement’ in country that sees hundreds of acid attacks each year

[Islamabad] Skin is one of the most important body organs. It does more than make one look good – it protects the body from infection, dehydration and a generally hostile environment. And for the victims of acid attacks and skin diseases, its importance goes far beyond the obvious issues of pain and aesthetics.

For years, doctors around the globe have tried use synthetic skin for grafts, but the process has always been expensive and time-consuming. In countries like Pakistan, where hundreds of cases of acid attacks are reported each year, the situation is even more alarming, as the majority of victims cannot afford expensive treatment such as plastic surgery.

Now a team from Pakistan’s University of Health Sciences says it has created a way to produce low-cost artificial skin, complete with blood vessels, which can be used not only for grafts and plastic surgery, but also the testing of cosmetics.

Headed by Prof. Javed Akram, a veteran physician as well as vice chancellor of the university, the team of doctors, biologists and microbiologists has produced cloned biological skin at a laboratory in Lahore. They claim it is of higher quality and durability than skin produced in the United States, Germany and several European countries.

Currently, Pakistan imports artificial skin from the US and Italy that costs $900 per square inch, a realistic sum for only a handful of patients in Pakistan, a conservative, mostly Muslim country of a little over 200 million people – where 60 percent of the population lives on $2 a day. The locally produced skin will cost just $10 dollars per square inch, including doctors’ fees and the necessary medications.

According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 400 cases of acid attacks are reported in the country each year. The high costs of plastic surgery and imported artificial skin force the majority of survivors to live their lives out with scars on their bodies.

However, a wave of excitement is now being felt by hundreds of thousands burn victims in Pakistan following claims by Akram’s team that it is ready to prepare biological or artificial skin on a large scale.

“It is indeed good news. Now, I can undergo treatment,” Maryam Yasmeen, the victim of an acid attack, told The Media Line.

Yasmeen suffered burns on 30% of her body following an acid attack two years ago. The high cost of plastic surgery has led her to continue living with burned skin.

Akram confirmed to The Media Line that his team had succeeded in its quest.

“We have produced human skin,” he said. “However, it takes time, as we lack facilities and equipment to produce it at an industrial scale.”

The University of Health Sciences has formally requested recognition of its artificial human skin from the country’s Drug Regulatory Authority, and the process is expected to be completed soon.

“We have signed an agreement with the representative body of the Pakistan Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association (PPMA),” Akram said. “A consortium of 20 large companies will manufacture the skin and related medications. We have made sure it will be available at low cost. Also, companies will export it globally.”

Haseeb Khan, a representative of the PPMA, confirmed that a memorandum of understanding had been signed with the University of Health Sciences to produce the human skin locally.

“We have placed an order to import advanced machinery from Canada and Spain,” Khan told The Media Line. “We have agreed to produce artificial human skin, the pupil of the human eye, and cells of kidneys in Pakistan according to international standards.”

According to Dr. Rauf Ahmed, a renowned microbiologist in Pakistan who played a vital role in producing the skin, its quality is better than that of skin manufactured in the US and Europe.

“It took local doctors only eight days to prepare a single draft of artificial biological skin,” Ahmed told The Media Line. “Some chemicals and chemical substances are used during the preparation. They are less expensive in Pakistan as compared to the US and EU. That’s why we have managed to keep the costs low.”

Dr. Yasmin Rashid, the provincial health minister, called the production of cloned biological skin by local doctors a “landmark achievement.”

“Pakistan spent millions of dollars on the import of human skin annually,” Rashid told The Media Line. “Now it will be available in Pakistan at low cost.”

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