For millions of Americans, scars are a fact of life. But for more than three decades Stanford researcher Dr. Michael Longaker, M.D., has been searching for a way to heal the skin without leaving a mark.
First, he explains that from childhood falls to injuries suffered in prehistoric times, scarring is part of an evolutionary survival system.
"Hundred thousand years ago, if you healed slowly, you got infected, you bled out and were disabilitated and eaten," he points out.
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But he became intrigued early in his career when colleagues began performing lifesaving surgeries inside the womb on fetuses with soft, still-forming skin that did not form scars.
Later, after discovering more about the molecular mechanisms associated with scarring, Longaker and collaborator Geoffrey Gurtner, M.D., began experimenting with materials that could keep tighter adult-like skin from stretching after an incision, and preventing the triggering of stress signals that prompt cells to form scar tissue.
While they had success with the material approach, Longaker's team wondered if there also might be a way to disrupt the same signaling process with a chemical instead They settled on a drug called Verteporfin, which is used to interrupt signaling during certain eye treatments.
"So we inject one time with this drug. We have no idea, we have no idea if it will work we just know it's a great target," Dr. Longaker explains.
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He says the results in mouse models was startling. A wound was stretched with a ring to simulate the stress, yet still healed close to the consistency of normal skin, also producing normal hair follicles not normally found in scar tissue. In addition, the healed skin appeared a strong as normal skin, as opposed to scar tissue which is typically 20% weaker.
"So after a month, you can't see anything. It just looked like I glued the ring on a mouse. Even the computer could not tell the difference," says Dr. Longaker.
The team now plans to gather more evidence, with the goal of possibly applying to the FDA for permission to launch human trials in the near future.