‘Artificial Skin’ Inventor Ioannis Yannas Recognized by the National Inventors Hall of Fame

Photo: John Freidah
Photo: John Freidah

The National Inventors Hall of Fame, together with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, recently disclosed the names of 14 distinguished inventors to be welcomed into the Hall of Fame ceremony on May 12, 2015. Among the inductees, that are known for their great impact on society, one can find Ioannis V. Yannas, Greek professor of polymer science and engineering in the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering.

His outstanding invention of “artificial skin” puts Yannas into the list of the approximately 500 world’s greatest Hall of Fame inventors who have contributed to the progress of science, as well as the United States’ welfare. But what is this success story about?

First, let’s go back a few decades ago, when human and pig skin were often used in burn treatments. Foreign tissues were commonly rejected by the host’s immune system and hampered all replacement skin efforts. Patients’ vulnerability to infection was very common due to the use of immune suppressive medication to prevent rejection. Additionally, human and pig skin couldn’t provide a normal moisture level in burn conditions, resulting in severe dehydration.

The aforementioned problems were the Greek MIT professor’s launch pad to find all the answers concerning burn treatments previously buried in the vast scientific “sand.” Yannas was examining the physics of collagen and the theory of viscoelasticity in polymers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, when he decided to meet with a specific surgeon in 1969. John F. Burke, chief of staff at Shriner’s Burns Institute in Boston, was known for his consistent efforts in burn treatments. It was then, when both these great scientific personalities decided to research better methods for burn victims.

Yannas and Burke worked hard to synthesize a dressing that would make wounds heal faster. At first, they found out that the membrane made healing happen slower than expected. During the process, they surprisingly noticed that the artificial collagenous membrane was aiding to the development of a new skin layer developed by the host and not depending on grafts removed from other pigs or humans. As a result, infectious rates and dehydration risk were drastically reduced, opening a new era in burn treatment and saving thousands of patients’ lives.