Third-degree burns typically require very complex treatment, and leave nasty scars once they've healed. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University, however, are reporting success at treating such burns on lab mice, using a new type of hydrogel that grows new skin (as opposed to scar tissue) over burn sites. The gel contains no drugs or biological components - it's made mainly from water and dissolved dextran, which is a sugar-like polymer.

The team, led by principal investigator Sharon Gerecht, had originally planned on infusing the hydrogel with stem cells and growth factors. Due to processes they don't fully understand, however, the gel in its basic form was able to grow new skin - complete with hair follicles, blood vessels and skin oil glands. The growth process takes 21 days.

The scientists believe that the physical structure of the hydrogel could be guiding the tissue growth, and that it could be attracting bone marrow stem cells circulating in the blood stream, then signaling them to form into skin cells and blood vessels. One thing they do know is that inflammatory cells are able to easily penetrate and degrade the gel, allowing blood vessels to form quickly, which in turn supports new tissue growth.

Gerecht believes that the hydrogel should be inexpensive and easy to manufacture on a commercial scale, and that it could also be used to treat wounds such as skin ulcers. More animals trials are planned before human testing is able to begin, but because the gel is likely to be classified as a device and not as a medication, it could be approved for use within just a few years.

A paper on the Johns Hopkins research was published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.