As If It Never Happened
The human body can do many impressive things. Despite years of evolution honing its capability to carry out the complicated mechanisms needed to ensure our survival, the body has not refined the process of healing skin. Sure, wounds inflicted on the body’s largest organ can heal, but we are left with scar tissue.
A team of scientists from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania however, believe they have found a way to do the previously impossible – allow skin to regenerate using fat cells.
Adipocytes, the type of skin that regenerates after we get superficial cuts, is filled with fat cells that allow it to blend easily to the rest of your skin as it heals. Scar tissue (made up cells called myofibroblasts), which occurs as our skin heals from deep cuts, looks very different because it contains no fat cells or hair follicles.
“The findings show we have a window of opportunity after wounding to influence the tissue to regenerate rather than scar,” said the study’s lead author Maksim Plikus, PhD, an assistant professor of Developmental and Cell Biology at the University of California, Irvine.
George Cotsarelis, chair of the Department of Dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania, explains,”the secret is to regenerate hair follicles first. After that, the fat will regenerate in response to the signals from those follicles.”
Window of Opportunity
The scientists just had to figure out where the signals were coming from. They eventually identified a factor called Bone Morphogenetic Protein which instructs the myofibroblasts to become fat. “Typically, myofibroblasts were thought to be incapable of becoming a different type of cell,” Cotsarelis said. “But our work shows we have the ability to influence these cells, and that they can be efficiently and stably converted into adipocytes.”
While the discovery is indeed impressive, it should be noted that the experiment is still in its early stages and serves only to demonstrate proof of concept.
Currently the process has only been proven to work in mice and human skin samples. Achieving hair follicle growth in a wound attached to a living human might prove to be more difficult. But should science find a way to do this, we may not have to worry about wounds leaving scars ever again.
Outside of obvious applications to prevent scarring, adipocyte loss is also a known side-effect of other medical conditions, including HIV treatments. The aging process leads to natural loss of these cells as well, which causes permanent wrinkling of the skin. These findings could pave the way for a safer, and possibly permanent, way to address these cosmetic concerns.