Scientists have a promising if slightly grisly treatment for wounds: skin from human cadavers stripped of everything but its cells. Sound weird? Let me explain.
Organ transplants are easy to understand; you take the whole organ and put it in a new body. But there are plenty of structures like ligaments, cartilage, the windpipe that are made primarily of protein. Take the live cells away, and you still have a proteinaceous matrix. Your skin cells are also held together by a scaffold of proteins, and this extracellular matrix can be isolated and used to treat wounds.
In a study published in PLoS ONE, researchers took cadaver skin and stripped it of all cells using detergents and enzymes. (Getting rid of the all the cells also means avoiding rejection by the patient's immune system.) This extracellular matrix was then placed on the wounds of 50 brave volunteers. LiveScience's Charles Q. Choi explains:
[T]he scientists removed four disks of skin, each about 0.2 inches (5 millimeters) wide, from 50 healthy volunteers. For each volunteer, one wound site was left alone, the next had the removed skin re-inserted, another was treated with an artificial skin substitute, and the last was treated with decellularized dermis.
The researchers found that decellularized dermis was the best at triggering growth of new blood vessels. The skin tissue that resulted from decellularized dermis also had comparable strength and other properties to normal skin.
Decellularized skin has been used to treat chronic wounds that don't heal, but this new study shows it is effective for treating acute wounds as well. The proteins of natural skin promote the growth of new blood vessels and healing. Despite all the advances in artificial skin, they're just not as good as the real thing. [LiveScience, PLoS ONE]
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