Major burn patients usually must wait weeks for artificial skin to be grown in the laboratory to replace their damaged skin, buy a Spanish laboratory has developed new protocols and techniques that accelerate the growth of artificial skin from umbilical cord stem cells. Such laboratory-grown skin can be frozen and stored in tissue banks and used when needed.
Growing skin in the laboratory requires the acquisition of keratinocytes, those cells that compose the skin and the mucosal covering inside our mouths. Keratinocytes can be cultured in the laboratory, but they have a long cell cycle, which means that they take a really long time to divide. Consequently, cell cultures of keratinocytes tend to take a very long time to grow.
As they grow, the keratinocytes respond to connective tissue underneath them to receive the cues that tell them how to connect with each other and form either skin or oral mucosa. In patients with severe burns, however, the underlying connective tissue is also often damaged. Therefore, finding a way to not only accelerate the growth of cultured keratinocytes, but also to provide the underlying structure that directs the cells to form a proper epithelium is essential.
Remember that severe burn patients are living on borrowed time. Without a proper skin covering, water loss is severe and dehydration is a genuine threat. Also, infection is another looming threat. Therefore, the treatment of a burn patient is a race against time.
Because umbilical cord stem cells grow quickly and effectively in culture, they might be able to differentiate into keratinocytes and form the structures associated with oral mucosa and skin.
University of Granada researchers used a new type of epithelial covering to grow their artificial skin in addition to a biomaterial made of fibrin (the stiff, cable-like protein that forms clots) and agarose to provide the underlying connective tissue. In case you might need a refresher, an epithelium refers to a layer of cells that have distinct connects with each other and form a discrete layer. Epithelia can form single or multiple layers and can be composed of long, skinny cells, short, flat cells, or boxy cells. An epithelium is a membrane-like tissue composed of one or more layers of cells separated by very little intervening substances. Epithelia cover most internal and external surfaces of the body and its organs.
Previous work from this same research group showed that stem cells from Wharton’s jelly (connective tissue within the umbilical cord), could be converted into epithelial cells. This current study confirms and extends this previous work and applies it to growing skin, and oral mucosa.
“Creating this new type of skin suing stem cells, which can be stored in tissue banks, mains that it can be used instantly when injuries are caused, and which would bring the application of artificial skin forward many weeks,” said Antonio Campos, professor of histology and one of the authors of this study.
By growing the Wharton’s jelly stem cells on their engineered matrix in a three-dimensional culture system, Campos and his colleagues saw that the stem cells stratified (formed layers), and expressed a bunch of genes that are peculiar to skin and other types of epithelia that cover surfaces (e.g., cytokeratins 1, 4, 8, and 13; plakoglobin, filaggrin, and involucrin). When examined with an electron microscope, the cells had truly formed the kinds of tight connections and junctions that are so common to skin epithelia.
The authors conclude the article with this statement: “All these findings support the idea that HWJSCs could be useful for the development of human skin and oral mucosa tissues for clinical use in patients with large skin and oral mucosa injuries.” Think of it folks – new skin for burn patients, quickly, safely and ethically.
Now back to reality – this is exciting, but it is a a pre-clinical study. Larger animals studies must show the efficacy and safety of this protocol before human trials can be considered, but you must admit that it looks exciting; and without killing any embryos.
See I. Garzón, et al., Stem Cells Trans Med, August 2013 vol. 2 no. 8625-632.