Ioannis Yannas - Ioannis Yannas to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame
MIT professor of polymer science and engineering recognized for inventing "artificial skin."
Alissa Mallinson | Department of Mechanical Engineering
February 3, 2015
V. Yannas, professor of polymer science and engineering in the MIT
Department of Mechanical Engineering, was recognized as one of the
highest achievers in his field last week when the National Inventors Hall of Fame
announced it would be inducting him at their 2015 ceremony this May.
With this honor, which recognizes his invention of what has become known
as "artificial skin," Yannas joins a small group of approximately 500 renowned Hall-of-Fame inventors.
Until just a few decades ago, human and pig skin were often used in
burn treatments, but were commonly rejected by the body’s immune system.
Immune suppressants also left patients vulnerable to infection. What's
more, replacement skin often suffered from dehydration; at the time, no
one had yet found a way of rebuilding skin that could maintain a normal
In 1969, Yannas was studying the physics of collagen and the theory
of viscoelasticity in polymers at MIT when he approached surgeon John F.
Burke to collaborate on the problem. As chief of staff at Shriner's
Burns Institute in Boston, Burke had already made significant strides in
burn treatment, but was still missing a piece of the puzzle.
“He wanted something to keep the bacteria out and keep the moisture
in,” says Yannas. “So I started to work on synthesizing a dressing for
wounds that would speed up their closure, minimizing patients’ risk of
infection and dehydration.”
Regenerating a new organ
As it turned out, Yannas’ artificial skin did more than just block
infection and retain moisture — it actually helped to regenerate the
At first, however, Yannas and Burke thought they had failed
miserably. After several unsuccessful attempts to develop a dressing
that would speed up the healing process, one of their membranes finally
had an impact on the timeframe of healing — by significantly delaying it
rather than speeding it up as expected. Yannas was crushed by this
“At that point,” he says, “I began to think that our project to help
burn victims was over. Nevertheless, I could not stop myself from trying
to understand what had gone wrong. I mounted an effort to understand
why the collagen membrane had delayed closure. I spent two nights
studying tissue samples from the various experiments. Epiphany occurred
when I noticed that the dressing that had delayed closure had not
produced a scar.”
In its place, says Yannas, was a strange kind of tissue he had never
seen inside these wounds. It was dermis, the layer of normal skin
underneath the epidermis.
The trick, he discovered, had been adding a synthetic layer of
silicone on top of a layer of tissue-like “scaffolding” — a combination
of molecular material from cow tendons and shark cartilage that imitated
the matrix in tissues. The synthetic layer on top protects the skin
from bacteria and infection and keeps the moisture in, while the organic
layer below acts as a template on which new healthy skin cells and
matrix can grow. This was remarkable because it is well known that, once
injured, the dermis never grows back by itself in adults; instead
wounds fill up with scar.
“For years, we did not understand the impact that this discovery
would have,” Yannas says. “We simply thought it was a new treatment for
burn victims. Eventually, it became clear that we were regenerating a
Harvard Medical School Professor Myron Spector, a close collaborator
of Yannas’s for more than 20 years and an expert in biomaterials and
tissue engineering, says, “In addition to resulting in a highly
successful treatment for a broad spectrum of skin injuries and diseases,
which alone would have been a life’s achievement, the research that
Professor Yannas has conducted over the past three decades in developing
a collagen-based regeneration template has led to many significant
advancements. He has proved the validity of certain principles guiding
regeneration and has provided a groundbreaking model for medical-device
development and what is now termed ‘translational research.’"
Yannas’ regeneration principles and the collagen scaffolding he
invented have generated at least three start-ups founded by prior
students, postdoctoral fellows, and residents, with products to treat
defects in skin, peripheral nerves, the meniscus of the knee, and
Yannas is a member of the National Academy of Sciences (Institute of
Medicine) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science; a
founding fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological
Engineering; and a charter member of the Biomedical Engineering Society,
among others. He has previously won numerous awards, including the
Doolittle Award of the American Chemical Society and the Clemson Award
for Applied Science and Engineering from the Society of Biomaterials.
Yannas will be inducted along with 13 others, including John Burke
and fellow MIT graduate Edith Clarke, at the 2015 National Inventors
Hall of Fame induction ceremony in May. For more information, visit invent.org.