Medical breakthrough could eliminate need for painful skin grafts

Product regenerates patient's own fully functional skin in lab

HOUSTON – Treatment for severe burns usually includes skin grafts and months to years of therapy, all of which can be excruciatingly painful.

Now, a new product that may change all that. It regenerates a patient's own fully functional skin in a lab.

So far, it's worked on pig skin, but SkinTE could be life-changing for human burn patients.

"I just went to work one morning ... and turned the equipment on, and it flashed the whole first floor that I was in the middle of," burn victim James Hillman said.

A propane explosion four years ago left Hillman with second- and third-degree burns over half his body.

"I remember laying there and, like, seeing my tendon in my hands; it was burned so bad I had skin dripping off of it," he said.

Hillman spent three months in a burn unit. He had numerous skin grafts, which involved doctors moving healthy skin over burns, and years of painful therapy.

Biotech company PolarityTE has developed a treatment to grow a patient's own skin, potentially eliminating the need for skin grafts. A medical professional takes a 2-centimeter graft from the patient and ships it off in the SkinTE box to a lab, where the skin is grown in a 3-D system on a platform in a matter of hours.

"It's then returned to the patient and it literally grows on the patient, so the patient is used as its own medium," Dr. Stephen Milner said.

A gel eventually regenerates to full thickness, fully functional skin with new hair follicles in about three weeks.

"What's so amazing to me is that, one, you won't need all those donor sites. So it does away with all that extra part of the body being scarred," said Linda Ware, coordinator of Burn Rehab for Johns Hopkins Burn Center.

"Oh, it's mind-blowing, so exciting. I mean, not to have the skin grafts that I have," Hillman said.

Hillman is studying to be a burn nurse and someday hopes to help patients with SkinTE.

SkinTE is registered with the Food and Drug Administration, which means it is available in the United States. There will be a limited release in 15 centers around the country and a wider release next year. PolarityTE also hopes to begin a pilot human clinical trial later this year although that's not required by the FDA.