It happens quickly, say surgeons. You step off a curb or light a backyard grill, and your life is changed forever by profound injury. Patients arrive at major trauma centers every day with burns covering most of their bodies, or with a combination of skin, bone and muscle lost to terrible circumstance. Trauma surgeons do what they can to put things back together but are limited by today's tools.
Along these lines, research efforts captured in a recent Wired Article seek to create truly artificial replacement skin out of self-healing polymers and flexible electronics. Another near-future approach will be to use a patient's own body as a high-speed skin-producing factory with the help of appliances, engineered proteins and biochemicals.
We asked Steven Thomas, M.D., a UAB specialist in reconstructive surgery for patients with complex wounds and severe burns, for his take on both approaches. As an assistant professor in the Department of Surgery within the UAB School of Medicine and a former army surgeon, Dr. Thomas has spent much of his career looking for a better way to repair damaged tissue, layer by layer.
Show notes for the podcast:
00:56 UAB has the biggest burn and trauma centers in Alabama and Mississippi, and Dr. Thomas' team deals regularly with patients that have lost large amounts of skin, muscle and bone.
2:21 Burns pose a particular challenge when it comes to repairing skin, especially when all layers of skin (dermis, epidermis, etc.) have been destroyed. This requires surgeons to borrow skin from the non-burned areas. They can then use bioengineering techniques to regrow skin, but currently technologies do so slowly. When burns cover the majority of the patient's body, it is a challenge to regrow enough skin fast enough to avoid scarring.
3:22 According to Dr. Thomas, there is no current treatment option that efficiently and quickly makes available large amounts of replacement skin. Those that are available cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, require multiple procedures and don't work for all patients.
3:45 One product on the market now called the cultured epidermal autograph is grown from a patient's own skin cells by the biotech company Genzyme. From 2 postage stamp-sized biopsies, the company says it can grow enough skin to cover a patient’s entire body, but it may cost $600,000, said Dr. Thomas. What the field needs is inexpensive replacement skin that you could take off a shelf and apply.
5:10 Many current research efforts seek to create good artificial skin, but no one product has gelled yet. Today's attempts are not durable enough, he said, and need to be replaced by something that can be shipped and stored without losing its useful properties.
6:48 Some of the frontiers in artificial skin research include polymers that can knit themselves the way real skin does, but nothing to date does the job as well as the body itself The problem is large gaps in skin, which scar instead of knit.
7:58 Dr. Thomas is convinced that the future of the field will be in using the patient's own body as a high-speed bioreactor to make replacement skin, but it needs help. A current UAB research project led by graduate student Paul Bonvallet in the lab of Susan Bellis, Ph.D. seeks to provide that help using the protein collagen taken from cows. Collagen is the ingredient that gives shape, strength and structure to the body's connective tissues like bone and tendon, as well as to skin.
8:15 The UAB project is having some success in laying a mat of collagen across large areas where a patient has lost all layers of skin. The mat serves as a framework or scaffold that enables the skin to re-knit in an orderly way over of the dermis. The experimental product contains no cells, but the body populates it as needed.
8:42 UAB is among the first in the country to combine dermis scaffold and skin grafts to get patients re-covered with skin after major injuries. Dr. Thomas mentioned one accident victim that was hit and dragged underneath a garbage truck, loosing much of his skin, along with some bone and muscle, from the waist down. Through a combination of therapies, the surgeons were able to re-grow the lost skin, and the man is up and walking today. Dr. Thomas believes that in most places that man would have lost his legs.
9:21 Underway already at UAB are efforts to combine scaffolds with different mixes of stem cells and enzymes that encourage growth. The combination of framework and tailored cells is getting closer and closer to mimicking native tissue, itself a mix of cells and scaffolds.
10:09 Depending on the type of collagen used, it can act as the highway with guide rails that shows skin cells the pattern they need to grow in to cover over a wound or burn. Some types of collagen are better at doing this without leaving a scar. Dr. Thomas' team has been able to get good-sized wounds to heal in a few weeks using collagen biotechnology that used to take months.
11:57 Returning to the effort to generate truly artificial skin mentioned in the Wired article, Dr, Thomas said that the military has invested in such technologies in hopes of better regenerating skin for wounded soldiers. Institutions like DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and AFIRM, the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine, fund related research projects.
12:15 Dr. Thomas thinks that, while the body may be best at creating skin for burns and wounds, artificial skin made from polymers has the potential to dramatically improve the nature of artificial limbs. During his years at the Brooke Army Medical Center burn unit, Dr. Thomas saw lots of amputees come in, and worked with many soldiers trying to get used to prosthetic limbs. He said today's prosthetic arms have no proprioception, the sense of where the limb is in space and with respect to the rest of the body. They also have no sense of touch. Creating limbs with these capabilities would represent a huge leap for people with prosthetics, he said.
14:00 Dr. Thomas has worked with the Bellis lab experimenting with electrospinning, a process that uses electrical charge to draw a nano-scale thread of material from a liquid. It is particularly suited for the production of fibers out of large and complex molecules like collagen. Electrospun collage can be woven into mats that promote cell growth and the penetration of cells into the engineered scaffold. The other great thing about electrospun materials is that they are inexpensive.
15:59 To fill in a complex wound, Dr. Thomas would like to have a treatment that could regrow skin, muscle and bone in layers. Stem cells engineered in concert and in layers to achieve such complex healing is a future possibility, he said. It may be too much to ask one product to achieve all that, and may require a combination of stem cell-driven products used together with precise timing.