Spray-On Skin Cells Could Help Burns Heal

Anna Petherick and Ben Harder
for National Geographic News
September 12, 2005
Doctors in the U.K. are performing what they say is the first clinical study to test whether spray-on skin cells effectively treat burns.

The spray-on technique was pioneered in Australia several years ago and is thought to reduce scarring and speed up the healing process in patients with extensive burns.

"When burns extend over 50 or 60 percent of the body, patients don't have enough of their own skin to cover them," said Baljit Dheansa, a consultant physician for burns and plastic surgery at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, England.

"We thought we'd give patients more skin cells than they had to start with," said Dheansa, who is involved in the study.

The technique involves taking a postage stamp-size piece of healthy skin from a burn victim. Scientists use the skin's top layer, or epidermis, to grow new cells in a laboratory. The cells are then sprayed on a burn victim's damaged skin.

"In four weeks we can grow enough cells to cover the entire body's surface area," said Liz James, the scientist in charge of growing cells for the trial. James directs research at the Blond McIndoe Centre, a donation-supported surgery center based at Queen Victoria Hospital.

Currently doctors treat extensive burns by creating a graft. A piece of healthy skin from a victim is stretched up to six times its original size. The process creates holes in the skin so that it resembles a fine mesh fabric.

The graft is then placed over the victim's burned skin and, as the patient recovers, new skin cells grow to fill in the holes.

The new trial will test whether spraying extra cultured skin cells in the holes of the mesh makes burns heal better or more quickly.

Proving the Practice

The researchers hope that about 25 burn victims will volunteer to receive spray-on cells. Half of each volunteer's wounds will get the spray treatment and the other half will be treated using only the standard graft technique.

According to Dheansa, people who survive extreme burns are often left too weak to do many things for themselves. He hopes the trial will show that the spray-on technique improves patients' rate of recovery and their final outcome.

If the new approach speeds patients' recovery time, it might also prove more economical. The average hospital stay for a burn victim can cost up to $3,680 (U.S.) per day and can last for about two weeks.

In contrast, a single spray treatment can cost about $9,000 (U.S.).

"I believe that the speed of healing and the overall functional and cosmetic outcome of resultant burn injuries are greatly improved when cultured cells are used," said Debra Balderson, head of tissue services at Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham, England.

Balderson may provide the team with cultured cells for the study, but is not otherwise involved in the research.

Even without results from the study, Balderson believes many surgeons already agree on the benefits of the spray-on technique.

"Because of this shared opinion," she said, "we routinely grow, spray, and use skin cells to treat burn injuries in Birmingham."

Fiona Wood, a plastic surgeon who leads the burn unit at the Royal Perth Hospital in Australia, says spraying on cells "is routine practice for us here in western Australia."

Along with her colleagues, Wood devised the approach of growing and spraying on extra skin cells nearly a decade ago. The hospital has since used it to treat burns and other scar-forming injuries in more than a thousand patients.

"We are thrilled that the technology is being adopted and explored [in other countries]," Wood said. "We constantly strive to learn from today's experience to enhance tomorrow's performance."

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