Friday, February 11, 2011

The Future of Spray-On Skin

In my last post, I wrote about how an increasing number of complexities in modern society may constrain our collective ability to innovate. Whether it is the existing infrastructure that supports older technologies over newer ones, or a litigious society that exposes those doing something new and unproven to enormous financial risk, we are putting our inventors and entrepreneurs in an ever-tighter straight jacket.

Well, I found an interesting test case for the theory: spray-on skin. What's that? It sounds like some ridiculous thing I just made up? Well, then watch this video and doubt no more, my skeptical friend. For those of you who would rather not see images of severe burns, let me explain: scientists have figured out how to harvest skin cells from the remaining healthy skin on a burn victim, put them in a solution, and apply that mixture through a spray gun to encourage rapid skin growth. They have successfully demonstrated that this works in a number of cases, and it takes a fraction of the time that traditional skin grafts do.

On the surface, this seems like an easy innovation to adopt. It is easier, faster, clinically superior and (once it gets up to scale) probably cheaper than the existing options. Yet I see a number of obstacles to spray-on skin coming to a hospital near you:

1) The procedure uses stem cells, which have the taint of controversy, even though in this case the cells are harvested from the patient's skin, not embryos.
2) The gun will be a capital expense for hospitals, whereas skin grafts don't require any new capital equipment.
3) Surgeons are compensated based on set reimbursement rates for different types of procedures. Spraying on skin would need a code, which can take years. And when it gets one, it may pay physicians much less than the compensation for a skin graft procedure.
4) Skin grafts are big business (check out KCI if you don't believe me) and they are likely to vigorously oppose any disruptive new technologies in their space.

Now, all of these obstacles are surmountable, but it won't be easy. Which is why I view the spray-on skin as a test case of sorts: if it can run the gauntlet and get widespread adoption in the next few years, I will have to revise my earlier opinion and admit that our society, as imperfect as it is, still has room to identify and advance radical, life-improving innovations.

No comments:

Post a Comment