S'pore team finds faster way to grow human skin

Photo above: Dr Alvin Chua, a senior principal scientific officer at SGH's Skin Bank Unit, and his team has found a way to shorten the time it takes to grow human skin in the laboratory.

SINGAPORE - A group of doctors and scientists in Singapore has found a way to shorten the time it takes to grow human skin in the laboratory from four to about three weeks.

This could help save the lives of people who have been severely burned and do not have enough of their own skin left for safe skin transplants.

The work by the team from the Singapore General Hospital's (SGH) Burns Centre earned an award from the American Association of Tissue Banks last month.

Usually, when a person suffers from burn injuries, doctors try to use skin from other parts of his body to heal the wounds. This eliminates the risk of his immune system rejecting the skin graft.

But if the burn injuries cover more than 50 per cent of the body, removing skin from the healthy areas could further endanger his life.

In such cases, doctors usually take a skin sample about the size of a 50-cent coin from the patient to grow more skin in the laboratory.

In the meantime, skin patches from donors are used to temporarily protect the wounded areas and prevent bacterial infections.

On average, SGH sees about 20 burn cases a month, of which one is a severe case.

It usually takes about four weeks to grow enough skin to help severe burn victims. The SGH team's new method reduces this to about three weeks.

The group achieved this by reducing the time needed to prepare the skin sample.

To grow human skin in the laboratory, doctors have to first prepare "feeder cells". These are usually animal cells exposed to enough radiation so they do not grow but can still release nutrients and provide signals for the human skin cells' growth.

This method is approved for use only in critically ill patients such as severe burn cases.

When the human skin cells are large enough to create a patch of skin, the feeder cells are naturally ejected, making the patch relatively safe for human use.

Currently, preparing the feeder cells takes about a week and has to be done from scratch to ensure they work.

To reduce this time, the SGH team first tried to freeze prepared feeder cells for later use but the thawed cells would not stick to the culture plates quickly enough.

After checking medical journals, the group tested coating agents and found that gelatin - used in the food industry to form gels - solved the problem.

It had been used for other procedures such as growing embryonic stem cells.

Said Dr Alvin Chua, a senior principal scientific officer at SGH's Skin Bank Unit: "We were just the first to apply the gelatin use to growing human skin."

He added that the team grew skin patches from 10 different human skin samples using the new method.

"There's almost no difference in the cells' growth and regenerative property in the lab from the traditional method and our method," he said.

The team wants to get clearance from the local regulatory authorities and further test the method in clinical trials.

The team presented its work in the United States last month and will submit it for publication in a science journal.

zengkun@sph.com.sg


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