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The future of burns is elastic

Burns are extremely dangerous, distressing and disfiguring. Over 6 million people worldwide suffer from severe burns each year.

In Australia it costs around $700,000 to treat a single patient with major burns. Current treatments are not adequate as skin grafts from elsewhere on a patient only work well if a small area is burned. For large burns there isn’t enough healthy skin, and grafts from other people are often rejected. Existing skin substitutes can have biocompatibility issues, or they don’t overcome wound contraction.

Prof. Tony Weiss’s team at the University of Sydney works on the basic biology of elastin and on developing a range of elastin-based products that encourage skin healing.
Elastin is a crucial building block in our bodies – it forms part of a flexible protein network that allows skin to stretch and twist, blood vessels to expand and relax with every heartbeat, and lungs to swell and contract with each breath. The research team’s early work focused on developing a method to produce synthetic human elastin that can be either formed into a hydrogel matrix or spun into fibrous scaffolds mimicking the underlying structure and elasticity of normal human skin. New skin cells grow into the scaffold and the stretchiness of elastin provides lasting elasticity to the healed wound. This elasticity is very important to effective healing of burns.

More recently, the researchers along with collaborators in the United States have developed a slightly modified form of elastin into a highly elastic and sticky surgical glue, called MeTro, that quickly seals wounds without the need for staples or sutures. Its high elasticity makes it ideal for sealing wounds in tissues that continually expand and relax, such as lungs, hearts and arteries, which are otherwise at risk of re-opening. The material also works on internal wounds in hard-to-reach areas. When treated with UV light, MeTro sets in just 60 seconds. The technology has a built-in degrading enzyme which can be modified to determine how long the sealant lasts – from hours to months. Preclinical testing of MeTro has successfully sealed incisions in the arteries and lungs of rodents and the lungs of pigs.

A range of microscopy techniques including scanning electron and confocal microscopy, done at Microscopy Australia at the University of Sydney, have been essential to the work of Prof. Weiss’s team and Elastagen in studying elastin and their different product structures and how well these interact with cells.

Elastagen has been highly successful in attracting investment and in 2018 was bought by Allergan for $120M+.

Ref: Suzanne M. Mithieux, et al. 2018 Adv. Healthcare Mater., 1701206

Elastagen website