JEFFREY BROWN: And to a second science story about developments in growing new tissue to replace damaged skin.
Our story was a collaboration by two PBS stations, produced by Perry Stoner of NET Nebraska and narrated by Andrea Kissack of KQED-San Francisco’s “Quest” science program.
And a warning: This story contains some graphic images.
ANDREA KISSACK, KQED: Leigh Gramke has felt at home on the softball field for as long as she can remember.
LEIGH GRAMKE, burn victim: T-ball when I was like kindergarten, first grade, a long time ago.
MAN: The shortstop, number 12, Leigh Gramke.
ANDREA KISSACK: She ended high school as one of the state’s best players, earning a spot in the Nebraska All-Star Game. In December of 2010, life changed for Gramke in many ways.
LEIGH GRAMKE: I was coming home after a night and just lost control of my car and went into a creek, and the car caught on fire. A couple just happened to be following me and saw my lights disappear and pulled me out of the vehicle and saved my life.
ANDREA KISSACK: The accident left her with burns on 40 percent of her body and put her on a long road to recovery. In the U.S., about 450,000 people every year require medical treatment for burns. About 45,000 are like Gramke, requiring specialized care at a burn center.
DR. DAVID VOIGT, Saint Elizabeth Regional Medical Center: What we talk about is the scar formation.
ANDREA KISSACK: Dr. David Voigt is burn center co-director and surgeon at Saint Elizabeth Regional Medical Center in Lincoln, Nebraska. He says that, currently, the best treatment for serious burns is skin grafting. That’s the progress of using a patient’s own skin from an undamaged part of the body to replaced burned skin.
It’s done by removing a layer four-one-thousandths-of-an-inch thick and hoping it will mesh the two skin layers.
DR. DAVID VOIGT: We obviously can’t take very thick grafts, or else we cause a wound that won’t heal at the donor site, okay? So the thinner the graft when we place it on the burn, the more likely it is to contract a scar. Also, the donor sites, they can contract and scar as well. So that’s the downside. So, if you have a 30 percent burn, you’re going to end up with a 60 percent wound.
ANDREA KISSACK: And skin grafting, which has been the standard treatment for more than 60 years, comes with other concerns. Infections occur during the healing process, and scarring creates problems that are more than just cosmetic.
DR. MARK CARLSON, University of Nebraska Medical Center: The scar that comes after an injury doesn’t resemble the skin. It doesn’t function like skin. It doesn’t stretch. It doesn’t sweat.
ANDREA KISSACK: Dr. Mark Carlson is a surgeon with dual appointment at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Veterans Administration Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska. His lab is one of thousands around the world attempting to devise better skin replacement techniques.
DR. MARK CARLSON: One of the important aspects in wound healing is how much protein, particularly collagen, a cell is going to make to aid in the process of healing. Based on the results we get with these test tube experiments, we then try to optimize the design of the — that — the skin replacement to put into a living subject.
ANDREA KISSACK: In his research lab, Carlson is working on a spray-on liquid bandage, which could help address the wound healing challenge.
DR. MARK CARLSON: The liquid bandage is made of a sugar molecule, a chain of sugar molecules hooked together called a polymer. It forms a backbone or a matrix.
The body can absorb this, so it’s not like a cotton bandage, where you have to put on and take off. You can put this bandage on and leave it there.
ANDREA KISSACK: The liquid bandage research is part of a project funded by the Department of Defense. The goal is to quickly stop blood loss, which could save lives on the battlefield.
Carlson’s liquid bandage is successfully doing that on animals in his lab. The white areas on this pig liver are areas where liquid bandage stop bleeding. He calls it a starting point for growing new skin. If he’s able to successfully add cells and growth factors, the bandage could one day also regenerate tissue.
DR. MARK CARLSON: A lot of people call that the Holy Grail of wound healing. You know, instead of getting a scar, you get regeneration. We’re not there yet, but that’s kind of the big picture.
ANDREA KISSACK: While Carlson is trying to heal wounds from the skin’s surface, another group of researchers is approaching skin regeneration from deep inside the body’s cells.
At Nature Technology Corporation in Lincoln, Nebraska, scientists like Clague Hodgson are working with DNA to develop new ways to treat burns or diseases.
MAN: So, it looks like you got a pretty good yield on this batch.
WOMAN: Yes, I believe so.
ANDREA KISSACK: They have developed genetic engineering manufacturing called HyperGrow. It could be a way to dramatically increase the yield of therapies and vaccines to make them affordable for patients who urgently need them.
For wound injuries, it could shorten the recovery period. But all research has a long road before any products are approved for use in the real world.
DR. MARK CARLSON: In the last 50 years or so of biomedical research, there’s just numerous examples of therapies which have been touted, then when taken to, say, a large animal model or even to patients, falls completely flat and fails. And then you never hear about it again.
ANDREA KISSACK: Dr. Carlson isn’t yet sure if his liquid bandage approach will make it that far either. But he’s encouraged by the amount of research addressing the issue in biomedical labs in Nebraska and around the globe.
For burn victims like Leigh Gramke, tissue regeneration research could allow them to get back in the game of life much sooner.
LEIGH GRAMKE: Seeing other people run and going to the gym and doing stuff, I kind of want to do that again. So. . .
ANDREA KISSACK: And although Gramke probably won’t be able to resume her college softball career, she’s hoping, by next summer, she will be spending a lot more time playing the game she loves with friends.
JEFFREY BROWN: You can watch a full-length version of this report. You will find a link to the KQED “Quest” program’s website on ours.