Ambitions to grow healthy new skin for patients disfigured by burns or diseases received a boost Tuesday with a $2.4 million private grant to University of Minnesota researchers.
A team at the university’s Stem Cell Institute has already had success in taking stem cells from patients’ skin, correcting genetic deficiencies if necessary, and then coaxing them to produce healthy skin tissue. The next step is creating a biological scaffold that helps direct stem cells to the sites of wounds or injuries and grows new skin in the right locations and proportions.
“We think we can restore health in conditions that have been, or are still, without effective therapy, or have been deemed incurable altogether,” said Dr. Jakub Tolar, director of the institute, who is leading the skin regeneration research.
The new funding from the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation will accelerate that work, Tolar said, which could help patients injured in accidents, fires or combat or whose skin has been eroded by diseases or potent cancer therapies. The U has been a leader internationally over the past half-decade in using bone marrow transplants to treat such rare skin conditions as epidermolysis bullosa — a lack of collagen protein that causes children to have extremely fragile skin.
Tolar spoke Tuesday after performing a follow-up procedure on a 5-year-old boy whose transplant has resulted in much stronger, healthier skin. But even if the boy’s skin continues to strengthen — his mother used to peel it off just in the process of taking off his shirt — Tolar said the boy will have deformities that could be addressed by the skin stem cell transplants he is researching.
For problems such as severe burn wounds, treatments such as surgical grafts already exist. But Tolar said they have limitations. Wound patients often receive grafts of their own skin, but only after initial procedures in which balloons are inflated inside them to expand healthy sections of their skin and create enough extra to remove for grafting.
Skin stem cell transplants would reduce the severity of wound treatments. Using patients’ own tissue to grow and program stem cells to produce healthy skin also would help to avoid rejection issues.
“This is the next step. This is where medicine is going,” said Tolar, who couldn’t estimate when the skin transplant concept would be ready for human clinical trials or could be presented to federal authorities for approval for clinical use.
Mark Dienhart, head of the Schulze Foundation, said the organization, founded in 2004 by Best Buy founder Dick Schulze, is still reviewing which aspects of medicine should receive its philanthropy over the long term. In the interim, the foundation determined that the skin regeneration research was some of the most significant at the U, with the most potential for near-term impact.