Ioannis Yannas looks back wistfully on the surprising discovery of artificial skin (VIDEO).

How a Failed Experiment Turned Into a Stunning Medical Breakthrough (Video)

How a Failed Experiment Turned Into a Stunning Medical Breakthrough (Video)

Slate in motion.
Jan. 20 2016 9:37 AM

The Virtue of Failed Experiments

How a professor’s visit to a pediatric burn ward led to an unlikely breakthrough.

A Second Skin for Burn Victims
As pliable as the real thing.

Source: MIT

The fascinating video above tells the story of MIT Professor Ioannis Yannas, who was recently inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame alongside such luminaries as the Wright brothers and Steve Jobs. He’s there because, in the 1970s, he discovered a way to make human skin regenerate, an innovation that revolutionized the treatment of burn victims. The breakthrough, as it happens, was the direct result of a failed experiment.

Shortly after Yannas, then a young assistant professor of materials, met the now-late surgeon Dr. John Burke in 1969, the two shared a heartbreaking visit to Burke’s pediatric burn ward at Shriners Burns Institute in Boston. The experience had a profound impact on Yannas. Burke’s immediate problem was repairing burn victims’ skin—bandages were simply incapable of sealing large, damaged areas—and patients with extensive burns often died. Yannas and Burke decided to see if they could develop a bandage that would more quickly close wounds help them heal.


A range of synthetic and natural materials they tested on animals failed to speed up the scarring process. When a final test with collagen polymers actually made healing slow down, the baffled scientists decided to dig in and figure out why.

What they discovered—“a big surprise, totally unexpected, and hard to believe,” Yannas says now—was that while scars weren’t forming as they hoped, test animals were actually growing new skin. They hesitated to publish their results, afraid no one would believe them. Dr. Burke started developing what’s now the standard method for treating large-area burn victims with their artificial skin Integra.

The video offers an absorbing, moving story that’s full of lessons, among them just how beneficial a great failure can ultimately turn out to be.