The skin is the largest organ in the human body and its primary natural shield against germs and viruses. Skin that is damaged through major burn trauma is a life threatening condition. Victims of major burn trauma have had one traditional form of treatment – skin grafts -which take weeks to grow in a lab and, more importantly, involve a high risk of infection because the epidermis and dermis layers of the skin can no longer shield the inner body from infection.
An exciting breakthrough arose for burn victims in 2008 with the development of an experimental treatment, Skill Cell Gun. Professor Joerg C. Gerlach at the Department of Surgery at the University of Pittsburg’s McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine developed an experimental procedure to treat burn victims by harvesting the patient’s healthy, undamaged skin cells and spraying on them on the damaged burn site using a Skin-Cell Gun. The procedure is quick, lasting 90 minutes, as compared to traditional skin graft treatments that take weeks or months. Skin grafting involves taking healthy skin sections from the patient’s body and growing sheets of skin in the lab to later graft over the burn area.
The recovery time is dramatically reduced for the Skin Cell Gun procedure, which takes only a few days versus weeks and months for the grafting procedure. Using the standard grafting procedure, patients often are at risk of dying from infection before the grafting bonds to the wounded area. In addition, with the Skin Cell Gun, the skin regains its normal color and texture within a couple of months because pigment cells require more time to develop.
The Skin Cell Gun treatment has only been successful when it is performed immediately after the burn or, at most, within a week. The procedure is much like paint spraying. First, the physician isolates healthy stem cells from unburned part of skin. The stem cells are loaded into a sterile syringe that is combined with a water-based solution that is then placed in the cartridge position of the Skin Cell Gun. The spraying then takes place directly onto the damaged skin area – ideally on the same day as the burn occurred. The fitted spray nozzle allows the cells to be evenly distributed at uniform velocity into the wound.
The centerpiece of this novel procedure is a bioreactor that is a three dimensional breeding ground for cells, the cell spraying system and a type of “wound cap” or wound capillary system comprised of tubes that works as arteries and veins that create an “artificial vascular system” that distributes glucose, sugar, amino acids, antibiotics and electrolytes to the wound site. The bioreactor system serves to clean the wound and provides nutrients as the fragile skin stem cells regenerate new skin.
Presently, Stem Cell Gun treatment is offered to patients immediately following a second-degree burn because they still have skin remaining on the dermis level, which allows the stem skin cells to attach and grow. On the other hand, a third-degree burn victim no longer has epidermis or dermis skin covering the tissues and surrounding muscles and would not be a candidate for this experimental treatment. First-degree burn victims are generally not candidates for the Skin Cell Gun because they still have an epidermis layer of skin to expedite their own healing. Looking towards the future, the bioreactor’s potential applications are untapped and could include treatments for growing organs such as the pancreas and liver, bone marrow and cancer stem cells. Since 2008, the Skin Cell Gun has been used on over a dozen patients who have successfully recovered with minimal scarring.
Copyright © 2012 Alex Martin MD & Francesca Coxe, Los Angeles.
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