A regional skin bank, where living skin can be frozen and later used to provide life-saving grafts for burn victims, has opened at the Washington Hospital Center.

The skin bank, one of 16 in the nation, will allow surgeons to take a thin layer of skin from a donor soon after death, store it for up to two years and eventually use it as a temporary live "bandage" on a patient with severe burns. e

Dr. Marion Jordan, director of the hospital's burn center, who formally opened the facility yesterday, said donated skin can be critical to the survival of patients with burns over more than 40 percent of their body. Such patients lose large amounts of fluid and risk serious infections, he said.

In patients with less extensive burns, thin layers of skin can be taken from undamaged areas of their bodies and grafted over the burns as protection, he said. But "unfortnuately . . . major burn patients have little or no skin left to be used as grafts."

For these people, Jordan said, the best treatment is to remove dead tissue and graft the burned areas with donor skin, which starts to attach to the patient's own blood vessels within 12 hours and stays in place for about three weeks, peeling off once the victim's own skin begins to grow back.

Forty percent of the 350 patients treated during 1979 at the city's two burn centers -- the Washington Hospital Center and Children's Hospital -- could have benefited from donor skin grafts, Jordan estimated.

Before skin-banking technology became available, patients with burns over 70 percent of their body had a 70 percent chance of dying. But Jordan said that at Dallas' Parkland Hospital, which has had a skin bank for seven years, the death rate for patients has been cut to about 50 percent. "This is a life-saving measure," he said.

Doctors at the hospital here plan a campaign to encourage area residents to sign donor agreements when they apply for a driver's license. Once an agreement is signed, skin, as well as kidneys, and corneas, could be used after death to help patients who need them. But Jordan said that so far, most skin donations come through the cooperation of relatives after a patient dies.

Within 18 hours after death, doctors take the skin from unexposed areas of the body, such as the back and thighs. Only the topmost layer is removed, much like the skin that peels after a sunburn.

The donated skin is then frozen gradually by a machine that lowers the temperature one degree per minute. When it reaches 400 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, it is stored in liquid nitrogen and can be kept alive for up to two years.

Besides preventing infection, skin grafts reduce pain, because the skin covers exposed nerve endings, said Karen Trainor, the hospital center's skin bank coordinator. Because patients are so much more comfortable, they have a better appetite, can begin physical therapy more quickly and thus can leave the hospital much sooner, she said.

Persons interested in receiving donor information may call 541-7303. Persons 18 or older with no history of cancer and no serious infectious disease can sign a skin donor agreement Jordan said.