Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Second Skin

Medical research seems to be the Meow focus of the week. In keeping with that theme (which I may or may not abandon with the next post--I like to keep you guessing), I found this article by Pallab Ghosh, a science correspondent with BBC News, which I thought rather interesting. It's about a new form of artificial skin, from UK-based company Intercytex, made with human cells and proteins, which has the potential to reduce scarring significantly in burn victims and people with chronic wounds. This could be a nice step up from the traditional method of robbing Peter to pay Paul, a.k.a. skin grafts. Wouldn't it be great to see researchers come up with a way to help burn victims that doesn't require cutting the skin from one part of their body in order to graft it into another, damaged location? Wouldn't it be even better if that way meant that the patient would end up less scarred as a result? Limited tests so far are promising:

In tests researchers cut an oval section of skin from the arms of six healthy volunteers and replaced it with their lab-grown skin.

After 28 days the artificial skin had remained stable and the wounds had healed with relatively little scarring.

Dr Paul Kemp, Intercytex's chief scientist, said: "I was very surprised at how quickly the wounds healed.

"If this continues in larger trials then it could revolutionise the way in which wounds and burns are treated in the future."

Dr Kemp has been working with Ken Dunn, a consultant surgeon at the burns unit at Wythenshawe Hospital in Manchester.

Mr Dunn said: "This particular product behaves like the patients' own skin.

"It seems to excite much less reaction than the other materials we are using at the moment.

"If this is borne out in larger clinical trials then we would be very interested in using it with our patient group."

This new form of artificial skin seems to be more promising than previous attempts to create a skin substitute. From what Ghosh says, the key seems to be the human elements from which the artificial skin is composed:

The skin is created from a matrix made up of fibrin, a protein found in healing wounds.

To this is added human fibroblasts - cells used by the body to synthesise new tissue.

In a process that effectively replicates the way the body makes new skin, the cells produce and release another protein, collagen, which makes the matrix more stable.

It is in this form that the "skin" is implanted into a wound.

The researchers say that because the matrix is in a stable form, it is more able to withstand changes that take place during the healing process.

The fact that the collagen is synthesised directly by the cells themselves also more closely mirrors the natural healing process.

This was just a small test, on healthy patients, but the results are good enough to warrant further research. I find myself wondering whether a product like this, if it really was a stable addition to the patient's own skin, and if it was tolerated well by most patients' immune systems, couldn't make a big difference in expanding the number of victims who could be saved after terrible burns. I don't really know anything substantial here, and I certainly couldn't tell you all the reasons that people die after being burned, but I do know that there is a certain point of no return, a percentage of the body's skin burned to a certain degree, that means they simply can't be saved. I wonder if having a ready-made supply of replacement skin on hand, just waiting to be grafted onto the victim's body, could up the survival rate for people who previously would have been considered impossible to save. Would a patient with a higher percentage of surface area damage be able to recover if the damaged skin were removed promptly and the new "skin" allowed to start healing right away? I have no clue, but I'm excited by the notion. Even if that is not the case, the rewards of finding a stable artificial skin are awfully high for the people who would get to go through life with much less scarring than with traditional methods, but I can't help hoping the rewards are even greater still, and that patients who would have been lost might one day be saved through the blessings of scientific advancement. It's all speculation on my part, but it's cheerful speculation, so I'm going to give myself permission to dream big.