A collaboration including (left to right) Dr. Duncan Nickerson (Plastic Surgeon, Medical Director Calgary Firefighters’ Burn Treatment Centre), Ross Pambrun, treasurer, Calgary Firefighters’ Burn Treatment Society, Jeff Biernaskie from veterinary medicine and Dr. Vincent Gabriel (Director, Burn Rehabilitation Calgary Firefighters’ Burn Treatment Centre). Photo by Janet Webb

Improving Skin Grafts for Burn Victims

Researchers from the faculties of veterinary medicine and medicine are working to use dermal stem cells in an effort to improve skin grafts for people who have had burn injuries.

The Calgary Firefighters Burn Treatment Society (CFBTS) is helping fund the research, a collaboration between Dr. Jeff Biernaskie, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Vincent Gabriel, an assistant professor in the clinical neurosciences department in the Faculty of Medicine and Dr. Duncan Nickerson, a plastic surgeon and the director of the Calgary Firefighters’ Burn Treatment Centre at Foothills Medical Centre.

The researchers are studying how to employ dermal stem cells to make skin grafts function better, with the ultimate goal of helping burn survivors deal with the physical and psychological burden of their injuries.

With the current treatment, split thickness skin grafts, the top layer of skin is removed from a part of the body that isn’t burned and used to resurface the burned area “But the underlying dermis, the underneath part of the skin that contains all of the supportive fibroblasts, blood vessels,nerve endings and hair follicles are not transferred,” says Biernaskie, who has a CIHR New Investigator Award for his work on stem cell biology. “The skin graft itself will close a wound, but the result is abnormal skin.”

The current skin grafts are unattractive, the sensation is abnormal and it is often extremely itchy. “The nerves that do come back in are not functioning correctly, so the normal signalling that they would get is turned into this itching sensation and it’s a constant,” he says. This is a problem, because the grafted skin is often more fragile and so excessive scratching may lead to wound breakdown.

The researchers are examining how to harvest dermal stem cells from patients for use with the skin graft, either at the same time or after the graft has been applied to the burn.

“Our hope is we could regenerate the missing dermis within these grafts and perhaps restore various skin appendages (hair follicles and glands) that are missing so there can be oil production, sweat, and in places where you need or want hair, it will be restored,” says Biernaskie. “We also think it will improve innervation within the graft, the nerves will grow in better.”

The research is funded by the Stem Cell Network and the CFBTS—the Firefighters have contributed $50,000 as well as a further $70,000 to help buy a specialized microscope to allow high resolution imaging of skin grafts as well as study dermal stem cells in vitro.