The disabling disfigurement suffered by many burns victims could be consigned to history thanks to a revolutionary new dressing developed by a team of Birmingham scientists.
Decorin is a synthetic version of a molecule which occurs naturally in the body – albeit in tiny amounts. Decorin controls scarring by blocking the activity of a range of inflammatory cytokines that flood wounds and orchestrate the fibrosis which causes scarring.
Professor Ann Logan, who specialises in neurotrauma, identified it as a possible agent in anti-scarring dressings through her work looking at how inflammatory cytokines regulate the repair of injured brain, eye and spinal cord tissue. Working with Professor Logan, Professor Liam Grover, a biomaterials expert from the School of Chemical Engineering, created a membrane wound dressing which incorporates synthetic Decorin and can be produced in sheets big enough to cover large areas of the body.
The dressing can be freeze dried, allowing it to be stored and manipulated by surgeons without damage, before being rehydrated with saline ahead of use. This novel property means that it could even be used by soldiers on the battlefield, keeping a dressing in their kit with a sachet of saline for use in an emergency.
Currently, the main priority for doctors treating burns is to prevent dehydration and infection, rather than scarring – but scars, and the contractures they create, are unsightly and can permanently hamper movement. Decorin prevents the development of contractures, allowing the wound to be closed with normal tissue rather than scar tissue.
Professor Logan said: “When the tissues are damaged, it is a race between scarring that quickly closes the wound with a ‘patch’ and regenerative healing that reconstructs more normal tissue – therefore our strategy is to use Decorin to slow down the scarring process. We don’t necessarily want to stop scarring per se, but promote the speed of regenerative healing before the skin scars. It’s about giving skin the time to heal naturally before the scarring takes over.
“There’s no treatment for these problem scars at the moment, so if we can prevent those scars, it will be a huge benefit to the patients.”
Professor Grover added: “This clinical problem, of slowing down the scarring to allow the skin to heal, was brought to me to see if I could create a robust burns dressing that could deliver drugs like Decorin without falling apart in the challenging wound environment. The trick is to ensure the drugs don’t affect the properties of the dressing and the properties of the dressing don’t affect the activity of the drugs.
“As materials scientists we design things to be used in everyday life, and I feel very proud that we are going to be able to use this to help people who have been injured.”
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