Skin farm breakthrough

March 28, 1997

THES reporters review the best of the papers from the Institute of Physics annual congress in Leeds

A PHYSICIST has stolen the human skin farming initiative from biologists.

Robert Bradley, from Loughborough physics department's Institute of Surface Technology, told the IoP conference this week that he is leading research into the quickest way of growing human skin on polymer film.

Human skin can already be grown in cultures on polymer substrates for use by surgeons in corrective and plastic surgery, where it is beginning to replace the traditional skin graft. This avoids the need for skin to be removed from healthy parts of the body.

"You can grow skin cells on umpteen other things, but on polymer, cells find it easy to sit down, get comfortable, and start growing," said Dr Bradley.

"It takes days just to grow small areas of skin. The problem is that there is often a finite amount of time after the loss of epidermis before infection sets in. Burn victims often die of infection rather than the burn itself. In situations like that it is desirable to grow skin from the patient's cells as quickly as possible."

Dr Bradley is experimenting with different polymer substrates, to find the right shape, chemistry and energy to encourage skin cells to attach themselves and multiply rapidly. He is keeping findings close to his chest, as the "large biomedical company" funding his research is "concerned about the commercial repercussions".

He says he is working primarily with two polymer substrates: polypropelene and ethyl-vinyl-asetate.

"I'm beginning to identify certain surface states which enhance cell growth. But I can't reveal the secrets," he says.

The research has an additional application. "If you can find out what it is cells like about specific surfaces, then you can understand how to make a surface that cells won't attach to. This could be very useful to prevent complications and blockages with equipment which is inserted into the body, like catheters," Dr Bradley explained.

The research will continue at Aberdeen's Robert Gordon University, where he will take over as head of the school of applied sciences later this year.

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