When babies are still in the womb, their tiny bodies are capable of regenerating skin and repairing wounds so perfectly that no scars form. Yet as adults our bodies have largely lost this capacity, leaving some of society’s most vulnerable citizens – such as the elderly, burn victims and diabetes sufferers – with chronic wounds that simply don’t heal.

But scientists in a diverse range of fields – from nanotechnology to biology – are working together to accelerate the human body’s own repair mechanisms to improve chronic wound treatments.

Professor of Regenerative Medicine at the University of South Australia, Allison Cowin says the impact of chronic wounds on society is widely underestimated.

“In the United States alone, 60,000 people die each year due to chronic wounds. ‘Superman’ Christopher Reeve didn’t die because he was a quadriplegic – he died due to complications with his wound treatment,” she says.

“Being able to develop new approaches and treatments to improve wound care will have long-reaching effects on people with diabetes, the elderly with non-healing wounds, children with burn injuries and for the many surgical wounds that fail to heal.”

Prof Cowin and her team have been investigating the role of a protein called Flightless I (Flii) in the wound healing process. She says that while they have found the amount of Flii increases significantly in wounded parts of the body, its presence in wounds actually impairs the healing process.

“Our studies showed that when the level of Flii is reduced, wounds heal far better. So we set out to develop an antibody that would essentially mop up this protein,” Prof Cowin says.

“The antibody we developed decreases the amount of Flii and in turn, improves the healing of wounds and decreases scarring. Wounds treated with this antibody improve 33 per cent faster by day five than wounds left to heal on their own.

“Taking what we’ve learnt, we are now working with biomaterial and nanotechnology scientists to establish new approaches to wound repair. By combining regenerative therapy with nanotechnology, we are developing nanoparticles containing this protein that can be put into wound dressings and bandages. 

“These new dressings will regenerate damaged tissues and organs in the body by either replacing the damaged tissues or by stimulating the body’s own repair mechanisms to heal previously irreparable tissues or organs.”

Prof Cowin is based at UniSA’s Mawson Institute, which is involved in two national Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) in related fields – the Wound Management Innovation CRC and the Cell Therapy Manufacturing CRC.

Both CRCs will play a vital role in getting the research from ‘the bench to the bedside’ so that some of society’s most vulnerable citizens will not lose limbs, or sometimes even their lives, due to chronic wounds.