Regenerative Medicine Technique Speeds Healing of Burn Wounds

A new medical technique can dramatically improve healing time for severe burn wounds.  The device looks more like a gadget from Doctor Who than one from a surgery room.  And the stem cells that form the tissue for healing the patient come from the patient.

People with serious injuries such as partial-thickness burns covering significant portions of their bodies are told two things on the way to the hospital:  the good news is if the burns were worse, they might die.  The bad news is that recovering from substantial partial-thickness burns can be one of the most painful and expensive medical experiences they will likely face.  The standard treatment involves surgical and mechanical debridement, skin grafts, a rigorous hygiene schedule, and even with prescription narcotics there is significant pain.  Thirty days out-of-work or more is common.

While the process of spraying skin cells was invented in Argentina approximately twenty years ago, a significant leap in quality improvement was made by Dr. Fiona Wood in Australia.  She and her team reduced the time required to culture the volume of new cells sufficient to cover large wounds from 21 days to 5 days.  Growing large sheets of skin for grafting is not a new idea either.  Time is a significant factor in burn recovery.  The longer it takes for new skin to be cultured and grafted to the patient, the more opportunity there is for infections to develop. Lethal Infections can develop beneath newly-grafted skin as well.

A joint research effort by the USA and the UK funded a team led by Professor Joerg C. Gerlach and others at the Department of Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh’s McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine.  Instead of relying on hand-pumped delivery systems, they took after professional painters and engineered the device that lets them spray skin cells onto a patient the way anybody would paint a fence:  gently.  The hand-pumped delivery devices worked more like pressure washers, and could damage the skin.

The technique sounds deceptively simple.  A sample of healthy skin is taken from the patient; stem cells are isolated from the sample and combined with water.  The burned areas are sprayed with the mix.  Normally, partial-thickness burns can take weeks or months to heal.  This new method lasts approximately ninety minutes from cell-harvesting to cell-spraying, and burned areas can improve significantly in as little as three days.  Cell growth is promoted by a treated bandage placed over the newly-sprayed skin.  The bandage is coated with a mix of nutrients and antibiotics to sustain the growing cells and prevent infection while healing begins.  There is one misconception surrounding Professor Gerlach’s technique.  Individuals are not totally healed in three days.  The burn wound may resemble a dry wound needing no bandages after three or four days.  For a burn patient, that is a hugely significant benefit.

The next therapeutic wave is likely to come from tissue engineering.  Synthetic cells combining organic material with a matrix of nanofibers, tissue grown outside a patient to later be transplanted, and methods and materials of speeding up healthy cell growth are all open fields.  As early as 2005, transplanting insulin-producing pancreatic cells seemed to offer a cure for type 1 diabetes.  An altered HIV virus has been used to attack breast cancer cells in mice.  The future can only get better.

Photo credit: US Gov