When someone has a severe burn, a protective covering needs to be temporarily grafted onto the wound site – and as soon as possible. Although that covering typically consists of skin from a human cadaver, genetically-engineered live-cell pigskin has now been used on a patient for the first time.
Applied to second- and third-degree burns, sheets of human cadaveric skin – also known as allografts – initially help to protect wounds against infection and fluid loss, along with the potentially-lethal complications that could follow. Once the recipient has stabilized, the allograft is removed and a piece of the patient’s own skin, from another part of their body, is permanently transplanted onto the wound. Unfortunately, though, allografts are often in short supply, plus they can be expensive.
With that in mind, scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) developed a genetically-modified line of pigs, back in the 1990s. Those animals lack a gene that is ordinarily present in pigs but not in humans, allowing skin grafts from the pigs to appear less “foreign” to a human patient’s immune system.
Recently, this live-tissue pigskin, which is known as Xeno-Skin, was applied to a 2 by 2-inch burn alongside a larger conventional allograft. Both were secured in place using surgical staples and gauze bandages and then removed five days later. At that point, the two coverings were found to be “indistinguishable from each other” in appearance, having performed equally well at protecting the underlying wound by temporarily adhering to it as the patient stabilized.
The results are a big deal, representing a new chapter “in standards of care for burn and transplant patients alike.”