An experimental therapy that uses skin cells grown from an aborted fetus successfully healed severe burns in eight children, sparing them the need for skin grafts.
The treatment led to the regrowth of essentially normal skin on second- and third-degree burns in about two weeks, according to the report by a Swiss research team. The scarring and tissue contraction seen after many burns did not occur, and dressing changes were easier and less painful, the researchers said.
The fetal tissue promotes growth of the patient’s own skin cells rather than becoming incorporated into the recipient’s skin as a true “graft.” Further, it appears that a piece of fetal skin smaller than a postage stamp could be used to produce enough cells to treat hundreds of patients.
“The results were sort of unexpected. . . . These constructs seem to work as a biological Band-Aid, promoting spontaneous healing of the patient,” said Patrick Hohlfeld of University Hospital of Lausanne, who was one of the researchers.
The study will appear in a future edition of the Lancet and was published online today.
Cells grown from the foreskin of circumcised newborns and large pieces of skin removed from cadavers are sometimes used to cover burns and promote healing. The Swiss researchers were the first to use cells from a fetus — a 14-week male whose mother gave permission at the time of abortion.
Burns that destroy the outer skin layer — the epidermis — heal on their own. Ones that go deep into the second layer — the dermis — require skin grafts, patches of skin sliced off one part of the body, often the thigh, and transferred to the burned area. So-called third-degree burns that destroy the entire dermis and leave muscle or bone exposed also need grafts.
Several burn experts said the technique sounded promising, but its usefulness is not yet proved.
“I can’t say whether it’s a leap forward before we know how it compares with standard wound care,” said Roger W. Yurt, head of the burn center at Weill Cornell Medical Center, in New York.
“This is certainly work worth following with great eagerness. But in the absence of comparisons, it would be very difficult to assess the difference that the fetal cells bring,” said Robert Sheridan, chief of burn medicine at Shriners Hospital for Children in Boston.
Deciding which second-degree burns need skin grafts is often a matter of judgment.
“Were they helping heal a burn that was going to heal on its own?” asked Gary Purdue, director of the burn center at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. “It’s good if it helps do that, but it may be only an incremental advance.”