revolutionary dissolvable scaffold for growing new
areas of skin could provide a safer, more effective
way of treating burns, diabetic ulcers and similar
This ultra-fine, 3-dimensional scaffold, which is
made from specially developed polymers, looks similar
to tissue paper but has fibres 100 times finer. Before
it is placed over a wound, the patient's skin cells
(obtained via a biopsy*) are introduced and attach
themselves to the scaffold, multiplying until they
eventually grow over it. When placed over the wound,
the scaffold dissolves harmlessly over 6 to 8 weeks,
leaving the patient's skin cells behind.
This new approach to skin reconstruction has been
developed by a team of chemists, materials scientists
and tissue engineers at the University of Sheffield
, with funding from the Engineering and Physical
Sciences Research Council. It is designed primarily
for cases involving extensive burns where surgeons
are unable to take enough skin grafts from elsewhere
on the body to cover the damaged areas. Currently,
bovine collagen** or skin from human donors is used
in these cases, but these approaches have potential
health and rejection risks.
“Simplicity is the key,” says Professor Tony Ryan,
who is leading the team. “Previous attempts to find
better ways of encouraging skin cell growth have
used chemical additives and other elaborate techniques
to produce scaffolds, but their success has been
limited. We've found that skin cells are actually
very ‘smart' – it's in their DNA to sort themselves
into the right arrangement. They just need a comparatively
uncomplicated scaffold (and each other) to help them
grow in a safe, natural way.”
The polymers used in the scaffold are biodegradable
materials already approved for medical applications.
Because the team has recognised that skin cells are ‘smart'
and the scaffold can therefore be ‘dumb' (i.e. not
overly sophisticated), simple polymers can be used.
The process for making the scaffolds is based on
the well-known technique of electrospinning***. However,
the team has made a key advance by developing a new
method of making, from the same biodegradable polymers,
aligned-fibre ‘mats' of potential use in promoting
nerve or tendon growth. This method is currently
The next step in the research is to develop the
skin reconstruction technology for clinical use,
hopefully in the next few years. The technology also
offers possibilities for testing the toxicity of
cosmetic and similar products, using materials grown
in the laboratory that closely resemble natural skin.
“Ultimately, we can envisage treatment of burns
victims and the undertaking of reconstructive surgery
using the scaffold and the patient's own skin to
produce bespoke skin for that patient,” says Professor
Ryan. “As an accident-prone mountain biker, I find
that prospect very attractive!”
Notes for Editors
The 3-year research project “Synthesis, Processing
and Characterisation of Peptide-Containing Block
Co-Polymers for Skin Reconstruction” received EPSRC
funding of just over £354,000.
Team member Professor Sheila MacNeil has previous
experience of forming a start-up company (CellTran)
to take wound-healing products to the clinic and
then to market. For more information on CellTran's
Myskin tm product, see http://www.myskin-info.com/ .
*A biopsy is the removal of a sample of tissue from
a living person.
**Bovine collagen is a fibrous protein found in
***Electrospinning is a technique for producing
polymer fibres down to nano-scale and involves use
of an electrostatic field.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
(EPSRC) is the UK 's main agency for funding research
in engineering and the physical sciences. The EPSRC
invests more than £500 million a year in research
and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle
the next generation of technological change. The
areas covered range from information technology to
structural engineering, and mathematics to materials
science. This research forms the basis for future
economic development in the UK and improvements for
everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC also
actively promotes public awareness of science and
engineering. EPSRC works alongside other Research
Councils with responsibility for other areas of research.
The Research Councils work collectively on issues
of common concern via Research Councils UK. Website
address for more information on EPSRC: www.epsrc.ac.uk/
For more information, contact:
Professor Tony Ryan, Department of Chemistry, University
of Sheffield , Tel: 07879 431981, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org .