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Science-Fiction skin!

January 11, 2018

There has been an incredible leap forward recently in the field of genetics, published in Nature on the 8th of November 2017. An international team of medical researchers and practitioners have created incredible new transgenic skin. Regardless of whether you’re a budding geneticist, a science student looking to give their classroom lessons some context, or simply someone who loves to learn, this edition of Science  News from Sisters In Science has something for you!

 

If the concept of transgenic skin is new to you (as it certainly is for most, seeing as how new this science really is), let me first explain what it actually is. When the genetic material of one organism, let’s call this one species ‘A’, is introduced into the genetic material of another organism (species ‘B’) with the objective of altering it, the newly modified organism, species ‘B’, can be described as transgenic. With this in mind, transgenic skin is created by introducing foreign DNA (cells, in this case) into another living organism, where the cells and genetic material being introduced are relevant to the specific functions of the skin (in this study, the epidermis, which is the outermost layer of skin).

 

An epidermal sheet, representative of the fibrin-cultured grafts applied to the patient’s wounds.

Image courtesy of The Scientist[1]

 

This incredible new transgenic skin was created for a seven-year-old boy suffering from junctional epidermolysis bullosa (JEB). JEB is a chronic condition which causes the skin to blister and erode into open wounds. In this case, the patient had lost 60% of his epidermis, and was suffering immensely.

 

Using gene-cell-therapy (a combination treatment), the new skin covered approximately 80 percent of the patient’s body. Scientists biopsied the skin of the patient for analysis, and from this were able to prepare grafts for the regeneration of his skin. The new skin cells were transplanted to the patient’s existing wounds, where they were able to adhere to his dermis and continue to replicate themselves.

 

If you’re after some more gritty detail, here it is buding scientists: The condition being treated, JEB, is caused by mutations that occur in the genes that encode the heterotrimeric protein (or ‘G protein’) laminin-332. These genes are either LAMA3, LAMB3 or LAMC2, but JEB can also occur due to mutations in genes that encode collagen XVII and a6b4 integrins (which are also both proteins).

 

Using a non-blistered skin biopsy taken from the patient (measuring just 4cm2), the scientists in this study were able to create the grafts by determinining primary keratinocyte cultures (which are found in the basal layer of the skin), and refining the genetic material with complex processes using retroviral vectors, cDNA, and long terminal repeats. This was so successful that the regeneration of the patient’s epidermis on his arm was stable and complete only one month after grafting! There’s a lot of pretty dense sciency language here, so if you’d like to read a bit more about genetics I highly recommend some further light reading. ‘Introducing Genetics’ by Steve Jones and Borin Van Loon is an excellent illustrated guide.

 

The patient in this study was admitted to hospital in June 2015, and was discharged in Feburary of 2016. His skin is now durable and functions normally, requiring no additional medications of any kind! This is an enormous step forward not only the advancement and application of stem cell therapy, but it also has clarified for scientists precisely how cells proliferate. To quote the article directly, this study ‘provides a blueprint that can be applied to other stem cell-meditated combined ex vivo [taking place outside a living organism] cell and gene therapies.’ This could be the beginning of not only a difinitive treatmeant for burns and accident victims, but all kinds of new gene therapies. This is one step closer to changing the way our bodies code genetic information!

 

The study itself is linked underneath this article if you feel like reading the official scientific journal article in Nature, but Ruth Williams has written a wonderful recap of the study in The Scientist which is well-worth a sticky-beak.

 

Until next time budding scientists! Keep curious!

 

 

 

 

[1] https://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/50911/title/Child-Receives-Transgenic-Skin-Over-Most-of-His-Body/

 

[2] https://www.nature.com/articles/nature24487

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