Patching up skin burns and skin cancer

21 Sep 2004

Burns patients could potentially benefit from the latest world-first discovery from the labs of the University of Queensland's Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB).

By discovering the link between a vital cell signalling pathway and stem cells of the skin, the research team of IMB's Professor Brandon Wainwright produced skin containing up to four times as many stem cells and capable of producing more skin tissue in less time than current methods.

Professor Wainwright said not only did their work identify the link between skin stem cells and the signalling pathway sonic hedgehog (Shh), it also sheds new light on how basal cell carcinomas form.

"The pathway had previously been linked to blood and brain stem cells, but no-one knew that it played such an important role in regulating the number of skin stem cells available for skin production," he said.

Dr Christelle Adolphe, who conducted the majority of experimental work, explained that being able to regenerate skin cells very quickly would improve treatment for burns patients.

"This discovery will eventually lead to improved skin culture and grafting methods," she said.

"Currently cultured skin grafts for burns do not have hair follicles, sweat glands and other features that normal skin possesses.

"We now know that Shh can increase skin production and is required for hair follicles to form, so the next step is to understand how we can manipulate the Shh pathway to generate fully functioning skin in culture."

In addition the team also disproved the common belief that basal cell carcinomas, the most common form of skin cancer, are only formed from hair follicles or stem cells.

"With 90,000 new cases of BCC reported each year in Australia, understanding how and where BCC's form gives us clues into devising methods to help disrupt the formation of these skin cancers," she said.

These discoveries build on previous work by the labs of IMB's Professor Wainwright and Dr Carol Wicking in understanding the role of the hedgehog pathway and the development of various types of common human cancers.

The current work has been published the Development, one of the premier journals in the field.

The IMB is working to understand the information contained in our genes and proteins. This will better equip us to explore basis of our differences, and how and why things go wrong in disease states like cancer.