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Harvard Researchers Look to the Fetus for Better Wound Healing

In-utero healing has provided a new pathway for better wound recovery.

Two new studies by scientists at Harvard look to nanofibers inspired by fetal biology in the womb. Both nanofibers are applied to wounds using a fiber creation technology they developed called the Rotary Jet Spinning, or RJS, method.

The research is led by Kit Parker, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve who was inspired into the field of research based on his time in a combat zone. Parker and his team say they may be in the process of developing “a new paradigm” in wound healing – as inspired by the ravages of war itself.

“As a soldier in Afghanistan, I witnessed horrible wounds and, at times, the healing process for those wounds was a horror unto itself,” said Parker, in a Harvard statement on the work. “This research is a years-long effort by many people on my team to help with these problems.”

The first paper is in the June issue of the journal Biomaterials. It focuses on the use of fibronectin, a protein found in abundance in the human fetal skin and which has been linked to the complete healing of wounds prior to the third trimester, according to the scientists. (The protein is not found in abundance in adult skin).

The protein is woven into nanofiber scaffolds that were tested on injured mice. Their method indicated an 84 percent tissue restoration at the 20-day mark, compared with about 55 percent restoration with a dressing that is the current medical standard.

It could establish a “new paradigm” for wound healing, they conclude.

“When tested on a full-thickness wound mouse model, (fibronectin) nanofiber dressings not only accelerated wound closure, but also significantly improved tissue restoration, recovering dermal and epidermal structures as well as skin appendages and adipose tissue,” they write.

The second paper was published in Advanced Healthcare Materials in January. This study shows that a mixture including soy extracts was a cost-effective way to create a similar kind of nanofiber structure, using the same RJS method.

The dressing involved cellulose acetate and soy protein hydrolysate. Tested through both in vitro and in vivo methods, it indicates that the healing-promoting scaffolding improved healing about 21 percent over wounds that did not involve the soy protein extracts.

“In vivo, the (the material) scaffolds accelerate re-epithelialization and epidermal thinning as well as reduce scar formation and collagen anisotropy in a similar fashion to other fibrous scaffolds, but without the use of animal proteins or synthetic polymers,” they write.

The two methods could be complimentary, say the Harvard scientists. The soy-based nanofibers are cheaper, and would be good to use over large surface areas of the body. But the fibronectin would be better used to further scar reduction in key areas, like on the face and on other highly-visible parts of the body, they add.

“Our fiber-manufacturing system was developed specifically for the purpose of developing therapeutics for the wounds of war,” said Parker.

Both projects could become commercial in the future, since the Harvard Office of Technology Development holds the intellectual property rights, the school adds.



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