Stem Cell Research and Burn Treatment

Stem cell research is a relatively new technology that takes primitive human cells and develops them into varieties of cells in the human body, including blood cells and brain cells. A growing segment of the medical community has great hope for this research and its ability to uncover treatments and possibly even cures for some of the worst diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.  This research also holds promise for severe burn injury victims.

The importance of stem cell research to the medical community was evident on 9th October 2012 when the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology was awarded to John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka.  In 2006, Yamanaka made a breakthrough when he devised a means for reprogramming adult cells back to the embryonic state in the laboratory.  This breakthrough would not have been possible without Gurdon’s research over forty years ago which helped to pave the way for these findings.  The findings have subsequently enabled a revolution in regenerative medicine. Stem cell banks have greatly reduced the risk of immune rejection of stem cell derived transplants due to genetic matching.

As mentioned above, burn treatment is expected to be particularly aided by stem-cell research.  The healing process for burns patients can take months or years with many skin grafts and other surgeries taking place over a long period.  It is one of the most painful injuries to sustain.  Severe scarring takes place with deep burns, and as the scars thicken they often require surgery to allow the patient more mobility.  Traditional skin graft treatment can still be disfiguring.

One of the treatments now underway in clinical trials with stem cell therapy is to take a small sample of skin tissue from the burn victim from an area that is not burned and incubate this tissue (about 2 square inches) in an enzyme for about 20 minutes. The enzyme allows the patient’s own stem cells to be harvested from the tissue and put in a liquid suspension. From there the cells, suspended in the liquid, are put into a simple spraying device and sprayed onto the affected areas of the burn patient’s body. These stem cells spread themselves evenly across the burn wound area and multiply, regenerating the patient’s supple skin so that healing takes place quickly and without scarring.

The company that created the therapy, Cytori Therapeutics, Inc., has been awarded a $4.7 million U.S. government contract to further develop the stem-cell treatment for radiation and thermal  burns.  The stem cell therapy, approved in the U.K. to treat soft tissue wounds, is now gaining traction in the U.S.

The Department of Health and Human Service’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority supports preclinical and clinical research of the therapy with a two-year contract worth $106 million.  Cytori aims for the contract to be extended if certain  criteria are met.

According to a public statement by Cytori, one goal of the therapy is to be able to treat many burn victims following a “mass casualty event” such as the bombings in a nightclub in Bali several years ago.  While this news is extremely promising for burn injury survivors and their families, the research is still in its early development phases.