Wound Healing Therapy That Combines Gene and Stem Cell Therapy

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University have examined wound healing in older mice and discovered that increasing blood flow to the wound can increase the rate of wound healing. Increasing blood flow to the wound requires a combination of gene therapy and the same stem cells the body already uses to heal itself.

John W. Harmon is professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and in a presentation to the American College of Surgeons’ Surgical Club, made the case that harnessing the power of bone marrow stem cells can increase the rate at which older people heal.

As we age, our wounds do not heal as fast. However, Harmon thinks that harnessing the power of bone marrow stem cells can remedy this disparity in healing rates.

To heal burns or other wounds, stem cells from the one marrow rush into action and home to the wound where they can differentiate into blood vessels, skin, and other reparative tissues. Stem cell homing is mediated by a protein called Hypoxia-Inducible-Factor-1 (HIF-1). According to Harmon, in older patients, few of these stem cells are released from the bone marrow and there is a deficiency of HIF-1. HIF-1 was actually discovered about 15 years ago by one of Harmon’s collaborators, a Johns Hopkins scientist named Gregg J. Semenza.


Harmon’s first strategy was to boost HIF-1 levels by means of gene therapy. This simply consisted of injecting the rodents with a copy of the HIF-1 gene that yielded higher levels of HIF-1 expression.

Even though higher levels of HIF-1 improved wound healing rates, burns were another story. To accelerate burn healing, Harmon and his co-workers used bone marrow stem cells from younger mice combined with the increased levels of HIF-1. This combination of HIF-1 and bone marrow stem cells from younger mice led to accelerated healing of burns so that after 17 days, almost all the mice had completely healed burns. These animals that healed so fast showed better blood flow to the wound and more blood vessels supplying the wound.

Harmon said that while this strategy is promising, he think that a procedure that uses a patient’s own bone marrow cells would work better since such cells would have a much lower chance of being rejected by the patient’s immune system. In the meantime, HIF-1 gene therapy has been successfully used in humans with a sudden lack of blood flow to a limb (see Rajagopalan S., et al., Circulation. 2007 Mar 13;115(10):1234-43). Harmon postulated that “it’s not a stretch of the imagination to think this could someday be used in elderly people with burns or other difficult wounds.”


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Professor of Biochemistry at Spring Arbor University (SAU) in Spring Arbor, MI. Have been at SAU since 1999. Author of The Stem Cell Epistles. Before that I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA (1997-1999), and Sussex University, Falmer, UK (1994-1997). I studied Cell and Developmental Biology at UC Irvine (PhD 1994), and Microbiology at UC Davis (MA 1986, BS 1984).