A new way to help burn victims

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A research team at the University of Calgary is working on innovative stem cell research in the hope of creating new skin treatments for burn victims. Professors Jeff Biernaskie and Vincent Gabriel head the team, running a research lab at the Foothills 

“The lab studies skin stem cell biology specifically,” said Biernaskie. “We’re interested in cells that are involved in maintaining and regenerating both the epidermis and the dermis, which are the two most prominent layers of the skin.” 

According to Biernaskie, the stem cells researched come from adult skin and have amazing potential for tissue regeneration. 

“In this context, a stem cell is an adult stem cell,” said Biernaskie. “The difference between stem cells and any other cell is that they are able to divide and self-renew. They can undergo cell division, even in the adult human body, and make exact copies of themselves.” 

The hope is that, with further research, these stem cells could be used to repair skin damaged caused by severe burns. This would enhance current skin graft procedures that bring a number of unwanted complications. 

“The problem we’re facing is that if someone has a severe burn, the current treatment is a split pigment skin graft. What that means is the top layers of skin from an undamaged part of the body is transplanted overtop the burn site or the wound,” said Biernaskie. “One thing that burn survivors battle with is this chronic itching sensation. That’s extremely frustrating, but also it causes them to itch the graft and because it’s fragile, it opens up and then the wound is really susceptible to secondary infections.” 

These complications come from the missing dermis, which is the underlayer of the skin. Biernaskie hopes the team’s research will show how to generate this missing dermis and solve current problems with skin grafts.

“What we’re trying to do is use stem cells from the dermis, from human dermis, to grow them up in a dish in a lab, grow huge numbers of them so that they can be transplanted within a split pigment skin graft and promote new regeneration of new dermis within that skin graft and hopefully provide better function,” said Biernaskie. 

The research is a large collaborative effort that is funded by Alberta Innovates research grants. They’ve also received support from the Calgary Firefighters Burn Treatment Society, the 
U of C faculty of veterinary medicine and faculty of medicine.