Researchers have just identified a class of skin cells that are able to regenerate new skin tissue instead of scar tissue.
Will people with severe burns and/or large areas of the body soon be able to benefit from treatment that improves the healing of their wounds?
This is the hope of a new study published in the journal Cell. This work, conducted over five years by the University of Calgary, sheds light on the skin’s healing mechanisms and may lead to a treatment that regenerates healthy skin after a burn rather than the scar tissue.
Progenitor cells to be reprogrammed
People who suffer from severe burns or extensive skin damage often have to live with extreme scarring, disfigurement, and chronically tight and itchy skin. The reason for this is that the body’s healing processes have focused on preventing infections by quickly closing wounds rather than regenerating or restoring normal skin tissue.
The research team, led by Dr. Jeff Biernaskie, Professor of Stem Cell Biology at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Calgary (UCVM), was able to identify a specific class of progenitor cells found in the dermis, the deep connective tissue of the skin. “Progenitor cells are unique in that they are able to divide and create many new cells to maintain or repair tissue. After a lesion, these dermal progenitor cells are activated, proliferate, and then migrate into the wound, where they produce almost all of the new tissue that fills the wound, whether scar tissue or regenerated tissue,” explains Jeff Biernaskie.
Using state-of-the-art genomics techniques to profile thousands of individual cells at different points in time after injury, the research team compared areas of healing and regeneration within skin wounds. They found that these cells had the same origin. These are “different microenvironments within the wound (which activate completely different sets of genes),” says Dr. Biernaskie. This means that the signs found in the “regenerative zones” of the wound promote the reactivation of genes that are typically involved in the development of the skin. While they are in the healing areas, these pro-regenerative programs are absent or suppressed, and the healing programs dominate”.
New hope for burn victims
On the basis of these results, the researchers then showed that it is possible to modify the genetic programs that control skin regeneration. “We have shown that it is possible to modify the wound environment with drugs or directly alter the genetics of these precursor cells and that both are sufficient to alter their behavior during healing. And this can have a really impressive effect on wound healing, which involves the regeneration of new hair follicles, new glands, and fat in the wounded skin,” says Jeff Biernaskie.
The researchers now hope to develop a dermal regeneration treatment that could significantly improve the healing quality of burned skin.