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Fetal skin cells heal burns

August 18, 2005 By Roxanne Khamsi This article courtesy of Nature News.

Procedure could replace traditional skin grafting.

The application of a small number of fetal cells can heal the wounds of young burn victims, researchers in Switzerland report. The new procedure can produce a speedier and more complete recovery than traditional skin grafts, they say.

The source of the healing cells may prove controversial in countries such as the United States, however, as they came from an aborted fetus.

Doctors typically treat deep second- and third-degree burns with skin grafting. In this two-step surgical procedure a patch of skin is removed from one area of the body and transplanted to cover the wound. This can be effective, but often leaves the patient with a scar and may take months to heal.

The nurses couldn't believe the speed at which these burns healed.
Patrick Hohlfeld
University Hospital in Lausanne, Switzerland
Patrick Hohlfeld of the University Hospital in Lausanne, Switzerland, and his team decided to explore the potential of fetal skin cells in grafts. Fetuses have long been known to have remarkable regenerative abilities.

Hohlfeld says he expected the skin cells to act as a graft. But the cells seemed to confer restorative powers to the burnt skin, allowing the damaged tissue to heal itself.

The team doesn't know exactly how the skin cells had this effect. But Hohlfeld thinks the technique could work for adult burns, as well as other wounds. "We have not tested this healing process in older patients, but there is no reason to think otherwise," he says.

Rapid repair

The team obtained the fetal cells from a woman whose pregnancy was terminated at 14 weeks. They allowed the cells to divide in the laboratory, and then seeded them onto a bed of collagen - an important protein for skin elasticity - and incubated them for two days. This procedure can source several million 100-cm2 patches for transplant from a single fetal biopsy, they say.

Eight burn victims, ranging in age from 14 months to 9 years, underwent treatment. Hohlfeld and his colleagues placed tiny swatches of cells onto the burn wounds and covered the area with gauze. The treated wounds took an average of 15 days to heal, the team reports in The Lancet1. "The nurses couldn't believe the speed at which these burns healed," Hohlfeld says.

Other forms of treating similar burns frequently take up to six times as long. The remarkable flexibility of the skin mended with the fetal cells meant that the patients recovered full movement of their hands and fingers, the authors add.

The result not only gave the patients nearly perfect skin, but also spared them the trauma of having a graft taken from elsewhere on their body, Hohlfeld adds.


  1. Hohlfeld J., et al. Lancet, Published online doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(05)67107-3 (2005).


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