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Skin Substitutes Hold Promise for Burn Victims and Diabetics

Pins and graduate student Brett Downing '02 retrieve cryopreserved skin cells in preparation for an experiment (above). He and his students use dermal equivalents with microfabricated membranes (below, left and center) to study the performance of skin equivalents (below, right).

Each year more than 45,000 Americans suffer burns serious enough to require a hospital stay, according to the American Burn Association. A headline-grabbing nightclub fire in Rhode Island this year claimed the lives of 100 victims and severely burned nearly 200 others. As hospitals filled with the injured, doctors used a variety of artificial skin products to cover burns too deep and extensive to close with razor-thin slices of their patients' healthy skin or with cadaver grafts.

While skin substitutes protect against infection and promote healing, they offer only a temporary solution. George Pins, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at WPI, is working to develop bioengineered skin that would heal and function permanently, like the real thing. His research could spare burn victims the multiple, painful skin graft surgeries that follow when the body's largest organ is seriously injured.

"I'm interested in understanding how the biomaterials we use can be configured to get the best performance in wound healing and tissue regeneration," Pins says. "My philosophy is that the more biomaterials mimic Mother Nature, the better they will work. Can we use engineering technology to copy what the body does?"

Researchers have been trying to answer that question since skin substitutes were first developed in the early 1970s. Today Pins and his students study the nature and function of skin, trying to determine how the bioengineered scaffolds, or tissue-like constructs they create, interact with the body to mimic skin's cellular functions.

"My philosophy is that the more biomaterials mimic Mother Nature, the better they will work."

Understanding how wound healing and tissue regeneration are regulated by the interactions between cells and the extracellular matrix material that surrounds them is vital to improving the design of tissue-engineered skin substitutes for the repair of soft- and hard-tissue injuries. Pins' research includes studying the roles microfabricated scaffolds play in protein-based cell function for tissue engineering of skin and the development of tissue scaffolds that mimic the microstructure and mechanical properties of real skin. He also looks at the development of microfabricated cell and tissue culture systems to understand how they regulate the growth and differentiation of the various epithelial layers of skin, which normally regenerate in four weeks.

The ideal artificial skin product would come ready-to-use in pouches, available off-the-shelf, Pins says. Surgeons would simply tear open the pouches and apply the contents as a permanent cover for serious burns and open wounds. To that end, Pins wants to increase his understanding of wound healing and tissue regeneration. In addition to helping burn victims heal in a one-step process, his research offers the same great promise for the 600,000 diabetics per year facing amputations because of foot ulcers or other injuries that will not heal.

--Elizabeth Walker

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