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Stem Cells May Be Used as Skin Grafts

Study Shows Show Stems Cells Have Potential to Treat Burn Victims

By Bill Hendrick
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

Nov. 19, 2009 -- Human embryonic stem cells can be used to produce skin grafts for people who have been seriously burned, shows a study published in The Lancet.

Though patients have benefited from cell therapy for two decades, the techniques used have had limitations, write Hind Guenou, PhD, of INSERM and the Institute for Stem Cell Therapy and Exploration of Monogenic Diseases in Evry Cedex, France, and colleagues.

In one technique, a patient's own skin cells, or keratinocytes, are taken and more are grown in the laboratory to replace damaged skin, the researchers say.

This method has a major drawback, however: it takes three weeks to grow enough cells, and this puts patients at risk of dehydration and infection.

Specially processed skin from a deceased donor can be used to cover wounds, but availability is limited, and the tissue often is rejected by the patient, the researchers write.

So the scientists in this study, employing a pharmacological treatment over 40 days, seeded feeder cells with human embryonic stem cells. The treatment drives the human embryonic stem cells toward forming an epidermis, the outer layer of skin the researchers report.

The team says it was able to generate a population of cells that showed the characteristics of the epidermis. Once manipulated on an artificial surface, the cells were able to form a layer of skin, the scientists say.

In 12 weeks, after grafting it onto five mice, the skin layer that came from human embryonic stem cells had a structure the "consistent" with human skin.

"We have shown that keratinocytes can be derived from [human embryonic stem cells]," the researchers write. "Growing human epidermis from [human embryonic stem cells] could have clinical relevance as an unlimited resource for temporary skin replacement in patients with large burns awaiting" grafts from their own newly grown cells.

Whether this technology can be used to extend the period needed to grow enough cells for a permanent graft is not known and future research is needed to see if it is, the researchers say.

In a comment accompanying the article, Holger Schluter, PhD, and Pritinder Kaur, PhD, of the Epithelial Stem Cell Biology Laboratory in Melbourne, Australia, say the latest study "takes research into regenerative skin stem cells to the next level" and "suggests" that cells made from human embryonic stem cells could be transplanted onto burn patients who are awaiting the growth of their own cells.

SOURCES: News release, INSERM and Institute for Stem Cell Therapy and Exploration of Monogenic Diseases, Evry Cedex, France.

Guenou, H. The Lancet, Nov. 21, 2009; vol 374: pp 1745-1753.

Schluter, H. The Lancet, Nov. 21, 2009; vol 374: pp 1725-1726.

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