Good news about stem cells! A group of scientists in Italy have managed to treat a boy suffering from a life-threatening skin condition -- by growing him new skin in a laboratory.
The boy, a syrian refugee living in Germany, suffered from a severe form of junctional epidermolysis bullosa, a genetic disease that causes the skin to become fragile and blister. By the time he received specialist medical attention, the boy had lost almost all his skin (specifically, the epidermal layer of the skin), save a small patch on his leg and head. Doctors in Germany were unable to treat him, and assistance was sought from Italian scientists who had pioneered a technique to regenerate healthy skin in the laboratory – but had never attempted to use it for such an ambitious case.
The research team, led by Michele De Luca at the University of Modena, grew genetically modified skin in a laboratory that could replace the lost epidermal tissue for the boy. The replacement skin was based on a sample from the patient’s remaining healthy skin, which scientists genetically modified it using a virus to deliver a healthy version of the problematic gene.
The team grew enough skin to cover almost the entire body of the boy. During two operations in autumn 2015, the new epidermis was attached like a patchwork quilt, covering almost his entire body. Within a month, the graft had integrated into the lower layers of skin. The genetically modified cells in the graft include specialised skin stem cells that meant once the transplant was integrated it was able to renew and sustain the healthy skin.
“Once you have regenerated the epidermis, the stem cells keep making the renewal of the epidermis as in a normal [healthy person],” said De Luca. “All the data we have … are telling us that this is going to be a stable situation.”
Two years on the boy is doing well, his doctors said. His skin is healthy, he doesn’t need to take medication or use ointments, he is back at school, plays football and when he gets a cut it heals normally.
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