Like a Phoenix Rising From the Operating Table

Though burned skin tissue is usually discarded, it turns out it contains vital stem cells that could improve burn victims' recovery and quality of life.


Severe burns are some of the most painful and lethal traumas that a patient can sustain, and treating them is a brutal process. Wound coverage and wound healing are the most important life-or-death factors in burn treatment, but the current standard of care takes healthy skin from other areas to cover the burns. This creates even more wounds and scars, and in some cases there simply isn’t enough uninjured skin left to graft.

Every year, 11 million patients are treated for burns, and 265,000 burn victims’ injuries are fatal.

Before treatment can begin, burn wounds are surgically excised to remove injured tissue and reduce inflammation. Until now, it was assumed that the excised tissue was so injured that cells were unlikely to have survived, and it is usually discarded as medical waste.

Saeid Amini-Nik and Marc Jeschke, professors of medicine at the University of Toronto and researchers at Sunnybrook Research Institute, were the first to find that this discarded tissue still contains thousands of live stem cells. They were able to isolate cells from full-thickness third-degree burn tissue. The study was published in EBioMedicine.

Now they hope that adding these cells to a collagen dressing could help new skin regrow faster without taking uninjured skin for a graft.

“With cells added to the collagen, we expect the process of healing would be very fast – possibly days instead of weeks or months,” said Amini-Nik in a statement.

“For burn patients, time is very important: With the open wound and the need to change dressings, their chance of infection is high, and sometimes they die of sepsis. Much faster healing would be a major step forward.”

The study took the burn-derived skin stem cells and looked for healing in full-thickness skin injuries in animals. Mixed with collagen, the cells accomplished 30 percent faster skin regrowth. The hope is that human clinical trials will yield even better results because patients’ own cells would be used on themselves.

“Because we’re using actual skin stem cells, and not from some other part of the body, we believe the quality of the skin will be better,” added Amini-Nik.

In addition to faster healing, better healing would reduce itching and scarring while providing natural elasticity and stretch. Using a patient’s own skin cells will also eliminate rejection and reduce the time needed to prepare cells for treatment.

Notably, harvesting the cells is completely non-invasive. The excised tissue already needs to be removed before treatment, so it poses no additional risk to the patient.

This previously overlooked source of cells could not only boost survival, but also quality of life for burn victims. The strategy will be heading into human clinical trials in early 2019.

‹ Previous post
Next post ›

Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.