In 2015, a 7 year old boy was admitted to the burn unit of a hospital in Germany. Although he was missing large portions of his skin, he hadn't been burned. The boy had a rare and sometimes fatal genetic disorder called junctional epidermolysis bullosa (JEB), which causes skin to blister from even minor irritations like rubbing or scratching.
The boy had been dealing with blisters since he was a baby, but he contracted a Staph infection six weeks before he was admitted to the hospital that result in him losing about 60% of his skin.
Doctors tried everything they could in the following weeks to treat the boy, but he continued to get worse. So, with the consent of his parents, they decided to try growing him new skin. And they were successful. It's been two years since his doctors covered him in lab-grown skin, and the boy hasn't had a new blister since. His story was published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
How did they do it? Through the use of transgenic stem cells. In September of 2015, the boy's doctors took tiny square of his skin and sent it to a lab in Italy. There, scientists used a virus to genetically modify all of the cells in that patch of skin and then let the cells multiply until there were enough to seed onto nine square feet of gauze layered with protein gel. Because he was so young, nine square feet was more than enough to cover the boy's whole body.
By the time the skin cells were sent back to Germany and his doctors were able to administer the first treatment, the boy had lost 80% of his epidermis — the outer layer of skin. First, doctors had to "denude" the boy's body, meaning they removed any trace of dead or infected skin. They then carefully placed the gauze covered in lab-grown skin cells over his body.
First, they treated his arms and legs in October of 2015 and then his chest and back when another set of cells was sent in November. In January, they touched up any spots they missed and the boy was released from the hospital. He went back to elementary school a few weeks later.
"For the first time outside of the hematopoietic system we’ve been able to show that a transgenic stem cell can permanently regenerate an entire tissue," Michele De Luca, first author on the paper, told Wired. Other scientists are calling the feat "remarkable." And it is.
Stem cell research continues to be controversial, and while the researchers on this boy's case told Wired that they wouldn't recommend a treatment this aggressive unless someone is in "grave danger," it does show that stem cell treatments can be life-saving.
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