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

CRISPR
CRISPR’d Male “Surrogates” Can Produce Another Animal’s Prized Sperm
CRISPR’d Male “Surrogates” Can Produce Another Animal’s Prized Sperm
CRISPR
CRISPR’d Male “Surrogates” Can Produce Another Animal’s Prized Sperm
High-quality sperm means high-quality animals, but the process can be expensive or inaccessible. CRISPR-edited “surrogate sires” may provide a solution.

High-quality sperm means high-quality animals, but the process can be expensive or inaccessible. CRISPR-edited “surrogate sires” may provide a solution.

Medicine
Medieval Medicine Yields Modern Weapons
medieval medicine
Medicine
Medieval Medicine Yields Modern Weapons
Deadly antibiotic-resistant superbugs require new weapons. Ancient and medieval medicine may point us to where to find them.

Deadly antibiotic-resistant superbugs require new weapons. Ancient and medieval medicine may point us to where to find them.

Artificial Intelligence
The Most Impressive Language Generator Yet
language generator
Artificial Intelligence
The Most Impressive Language Generator Yet
OpenAI’s GPT-3 is currently the talk of Twitter. The powerful language generator is writing everything from sci-fi to code.

OpenAI’s GPT-3 is currently the talk of Twitter. The powerful language generator is writing everything from sci-fi to code.

Robotics
The Coronavirus Hospital Staffed by Robots
coronavirus hospital
Robotics
The Coronavirus Hospital Staffed by Robots
A robot-run coronavirus hospital in Wuhan, China, is just one remarkable example of how technology is helping combat the global COVID-19 outbreak.

A robot-run coronavirus hospital in Wuhan, China, is just one remarkable example of how technology is helping combat the global COVID-19 outbreak.

Fertility
Cancer Survivor Gives Birth Thanks to a New Fertility Procedure
Cancer Survivor Gives Birth Thanks to a New Fertility Procedure
Fertility
Cancer Survivor Gives Birth Thanks to a New Fertility Procedure
A French cancer survivor is the first person to give birth via a fertility treatment that involves freezing and thawing eggs that underwent in vitro maturation.

A French cancer survivor is the first person to give birth via a fertility treatment that involves freezing and thawing eggs that underwent in vitro maturation.

Superhuman
Electric Skin Gives Sensation Back to Amputees
Electric Skin Gives Sensation Back to Amputees
Watch Now
Superhuman
Electric Skin Gives Sensation Back to Amputees
Touch is a sensation that connects us all. This scientist created electronic skin that lets people with prosthetic limbs feel.
Watch Now

For amputees, the sensation of a ‘phantom limb’ can be a terrible or disorienting experience -- feeling a hand, arm or leg that isn’t there anymore. But researchers at Johns Hopkins have recognized that these sensations are a clue, and they’re using it to restore the sense of touch.

Reverse Innovation
MacGyver Medicine Can Save Lives
MacGyver Medicine Can Save Lives
Reverse Innovation
MacGyver Medicine Can Save Lives
The package is simple and dirt-cheap—a plastic bag with a condom, a syringe, a rubber tube, and a card with...

The package is simple and dirt-cheap—a plastic bag with a condom, a syringe, a rubber tube, and a card with instructions—but it can mean the difference between a mother living and dying.

Dispatches
Supercharging Photosynthesis Can Grow 40% More Food
Supercharging Photosynthesis Can Grow 40% More Food
Dispatches
Supercharging Photosynthesis Can Grow 40% More Food
We need a lot more calories to feed a growing world, and these scientists may have figured out how to get them.
By Amanda Cavanagh

We need a lot more calories to feed a growing world, and these scientists may have figured out how to get them.

On The Fringe
Searching for Cures in a Sewer
Searching for Cures in a Sewer
Watch Now
On The Fringe
Searching for Cures in a Sewer
Yale researcher Ben Chan spends a lot of time doing what most people would avoid at all costs. He travels the world...
Watch Now

Yale researcher Ben Chan spends a lot of time doing what most people would avoid at all costs. He travels the world collecting sewage samples. And he’s found that there are things hiding in our sewers. And not just clown or mutant turtles: potentially life-saving cures for antibiotic-resistant infections.