Skip to main content
Move the World.
A New Stem Cell Treatment Can Heal Burns, Bedsores, and Diabetic Ulcers

People with severe burns, bedsores or chronic diseases such as diabetes are at risk for developing wounds known as cutaneous ulcers, which can extend through multiple layers of the skin.

Apart from being extremely painful, these wounds can lead to serious, sometimes deadly, infections or amputations. Typically, these ulcers are treated by surgically transplanting existing skin to cover the burn or wound. However, when the ulcer is especially large, it can be challenging to graft enough skin. In such cases, researchers may isolate skin stem cells from a patient, grow them in the laboratory and transplant them back into the patient. But the procedure is time-consuming, risky for the patient and not necessarily effective.

The dramatically rising rates of diabetes alone underscore an urgent need to develop new, effective methods for the treatment of cutaneous ulcers.

My laboratory at the Salk Institute focuses on developing stem-cell-based approaches to “reprogram” cells from one type into another for the purpose of regenerative medicine.

In a report in the journal Nature, we describe a new technique to directly convert the cells naturally present in an open wound into new skin cells by reprogramming the wounded cells to a stem-cell-like state, in which cells revert to an earlier, more flexible state from which they can develop into different cell types.

A postdoctoral research associate in my lab, Masakazu Kurita, who has a background in plastic surgery, knew that a critical step in wound healing was the migration of stem-cell-like cells called basal keratinocytes – from nearby, undamaged skin – into wounds.

Basal keratinocytes are precursors to many different types of skin cells. But large, severe wounds such as cutaneous ulcers no longer have any basal keratinocytes. Moreover, as these wounds heal, the cells multiplying in the area – known as mesenchymal cells – are involved primarily in closing the wound and inflammation, but they cannot rebuild healthy skin.

We wanted to convert these mesenchymal cells into basal keratinocytes, without ever taking them out of the body.

To do so, we compared the levels of different proteins inside the two cell types – mesenchymal cells and keratinocytes – to figure out what distinguished them and find out what we would need to change in order to reprogram one cell type into the other.

We identified 55 proteins, which we call “reprogramming factors,” that are potentially involved in determining and maintaining the cellular identity of basal keratinocytes. We conducted further experiments on each potential reprogramming factor and narrowed the list down to four factors that would transform mesenchymal cells into basal keratinocytes in vitro in petri dishes. These keratinocytes then formed all the cells present in healthy new skin.

We then tested the power of these four factors to treat skin ulcers on mice. Just 18 days after we applied a topical solution containing these four factors directly onto the ulcers, we saw healing happen. These four factors reprogrammed the mesenchymal cells in the wound into keratinocytes which then grew into the many cells types that make up healthy skin, closing and healing the sore. These cells continued to grow and join the surrounding skin, even in large ulcers. When we examined the mice three months and six months later, we saw that the newly generated cells functioned like healthy skin. Rodent skin heals differently from human skin, so there was no visible scar tissue, though it should have been there.

Further work is necessary to ensure the safety of this treatment approach, especially over a much longer term, but as an initial test of the concept, the results are very promising.

We are optimistic that our approach represents an initial proof of principle for in vivo regeneration of an entire three-dimensional tissue, like the skin, not just individual cell types. In addition to burn and wound healing, our approach could be useful for repairing skin damage, countering the effects of aging and helping us to better understand skin cancer. The Conversation

Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte is a Professor in the Gene Expression Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and Adjunct Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology at UC-San Diego. This article was originally published at The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Up Next

Mental Health
MDMA Has Long-Lasting Benefits as a PTSD Treatment
PTSD Treatment
Mental Health
MDMA Has Long-Lasting Benefits as a PTSD Treatment
The benefits of MDMA therapy as a PTSD treatment appear to last for at least a year, according to a newly published paper.

The benefits of MDMA therapy as a PTSD treatment appear to last for at least a year, according to a newly published paper.

Bionics
Building an Artificially Intelligent, Open-Source Prosthetic Leg
prosthetic leg
Bionics
Building an Artificially Intelligent, Open-Source Prosthetic Leg
We've come a long way since the first prosthetic leg, and "smart" limbs, equipped with computing capabilities and...

We've come a long way since the first prosthetic leg, and "smart" limbs, equipped with computing capabilities and artificial intelligence, are on the horizon. But for a team of engineers at the University of Michigan and Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, advances still aren't happening fast enough. To move things along, they are giving away the plans to an AI prosthetic leg — hoping researchers will piggyback off each other's work,...

The Brain
Scientists Are Developing Brain Implants That Improve Memory
Brain Implants
The Brain
Scientists Are Developing Brain Implants That Improve Memory
New research sheds hope for sufferers of traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s, and for all of us, old age.

New research sheds hope for sufferers of traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s, and for all of us, old age.

Future of Medicine
THC Could Help Women With Endometriosis
thc for endometriosis
Future of Medicine
THC Could Help Women With Endometriosis
Hundreds of thousands of women suffer with endometriosis, a disorder that causes painful tissue growth outside of the uterus. Pending clinical trials around THC may finally spell relief.
By Sarah Wells

Hundreds of thousands of women suffer with endometriosis, a disorder that causes painful tissue growth outside of the uterus. Pending clinical trials around THC may finally spell relief.

Space Exploration
Closer to the Sun: NASA’s Parker Solar Probe
parker solar probe
Space Exploration
Closer to the Sun: NASA’s Parker Solar Probe
NASA is getting closer to the sun than ever before with the Parker Solar Probe, leaving researchers excited and bewildered by the data they saw.

NASA is getting closer to the sun than ever before with the Parker Solar Probe, leaving researchers excited and bewildered by the data they saw.

Superhuman
Spinal Implants: Helping the Paralyzed Walk Again
Spinal Implants: Helping the Paralyzed Walk Again
Watch Now
Superhuman
Spinal Implants: Helping the Paralyzed Walk Again
Walking after complete spinal cord injury used to be a far-fetched dream. But, with advances in spinal cord implants for paralysis, even paraplegics have been able to regain mobility and walk again.
Watch Now

Walking after complete spinal cord injury used to be a far-fetched dream. But, with advances in spinal cord implants for paralysis, even paraplegics have been able to regain mobility and walk again. Discover the inspiring stories of spinal cord research breakthroughs today and see the impact spinal implants have on individuals far and wide.

Meet the Amateur Astronomer Who Found a Lost NASA Satellite
Meet the Amateur Astronomer Who Found a Lost NASA Satellite
Watch Now
Meet the Amateur Astronomer Who Found a Lost NASA Satellite
A $130 million satellite vanished. Over a decade later, a blogger/astronomer found it.
Watch Now

Amateur astronomer Scott Tilley made international headlines when he rediscovered NASA’s IMAGE satellite, 13 years after it mysteriously disappeared. In this interview with Freethink, Scott discusses his role in the satellite’s recovery, why he enjoys amateur astronomy, and how citizen scientists like him have contributed to our knowledge of space from the space race to the present day.

Reducing Food Waste and Feeding the Hungry
Reducing Food Waste and Feeding the Hungry
Watch Now
Reducing Food Waste and Feeding the Hungry
What if instead of throwing out leftover food, we used it to feed the hungry?
Watch Now

Hunger effects nearly 15 million people in the United States, yet we rank number one in the world when it comes to food waste. A non-profit called Rescuing Leftover Cuisine is on a mission to take what would become food waste and use it to feed the hungry. Through their web app, restaurants, hotels, and catering companies can offer excess food for volunteers to pick up and bring to homeless shelters. So far, Rescuing...

Wrong
What Happened to the Beepocalypse?
What Happened to the Beepocalypse?
Watch Now
Wrong
What Happened to the Beepocalypse?
In 2006 bees started disappearing. Beekeepers reported to losing up to 90% of their beehives. And no one knew why....
Watch Now

In 2006 bees started disappearing. Beekeepers reported to losing up to 90% of their beehives. And no one knew why. Nearly every news outlet raised the alarm, warning of an imminent beepocalypse that would devastate our food supply. But while alarm bells rang, things turned around. And bee colonies are now at a 20 year high. How did we get the beepocalypse so… wrong?