Hydrogel helps grow new scar-free skin over third degree burns


December 16, 2011

Postdoctoral fellow Guoming Sun (left) and Sharon Gerecht, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, helped develop the burn-healing hydrogel

Postdoctoral fellow Guoming Sun (left) and Sharon Gerecht, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, helped develop the burn-healing hydrogel

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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.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

Sounds like an outstanding breakthrough, if it works out. Anyone who has ever seen the healed aftermath of a 3rd degree burn would agree that the stiff scars are at best unsightly and at worst limit range of motion.


\"the gel in its basic form was able to grow new skin - complete with hair follicles, blood vessels and skin oil glands\"

Interesting, could it perhaps have an application treating Male Pattern Baldness?

Coder Guy

Coder Guy, I hope that was sarcasm

Bill Bennett

Hi Bill,

No not sarcasm, sorry if you took offence it was a genuine question. I understand it is not as important an application as treating burns - it\'s an excellent technology. I was just wondering if it could be used for this purpose. Merry Xmas BTW

Coder Guy

I wonder if this gel can be applied topically to other skin conditions?

Gary Richardson

Coder- Good idea. It\'s not ever wrong to look for other uses for a new discovery. Even this turned out to work differently than the researched intended.

Can it be use to repair already heaeded with scar tissue 3rd degree burns if they surgically eemove the scar tissue and let new skin grow agian?

Joseph Shimandle

@Marcus Carr

Considering how many humans mice have killed, I\'m sure it\'d take a couple million more mice to make up the difference.

And you should try saying that to a burn victim. To their face. Which, if that\'s where they had their burn, will look like a halloween mask.

You insensitive little .....

Racqia Dvorak

The idea that the researchers are intentionally giving mice third degree burns and then treating them makes me feel sick. I suspect they\'re pinning them down as well, to keep them from moving and spoiling the results. Take a bow, humanity...

Marcus Carr

Marcus- Actually no. If you follow the links, while it does not go into great detail about the process, they were surgically removing the burned skin before treating it. No need to pin down a mouse if the mouse is not attached to what you\'re treating. My suspicion is that the procedure involved either knocking out or killing the mouse before burning it and removing the skin. The mouse was likely killed after the removal of the skin if it was not killed before. In either case, I\'m sure the mice were treated with all due care up until they were needed. You probably don\'t find this much more palatable, but at least this way the mouse doesn\'t suffer while being used for the purpose for which it was bred and without which it would never have existed at all.


Marcus Carr - A number of years ago I had mice find there way into my home. They shit every where.....they broke into packaged young son tried to pick one up and was bitten....the bite got infected. Traps did not work so I resorted to poison that employed a blood thinner that resulted in the mice bleeding to death internally (like "Ebola"). It worked. It was probably painful. I didn't care then and I don't care now......because, it was a mouse......and I wanted it gone. It's painful death in no way served mankind.

If you are so worried about the comfort of the poor mouse, go to a burn ward and look into the eyes of a 9 year old girl with 3rd degree burns to half her face and assign a value to that girl's predicament, then compare it to the value you would assign to the discomfort that poor mouse had to endure in serving mankind to create a treatment for that 9 year old girl. (Clearly of infinitely more value than the mice I killed)

Now pretend that she is YOUR daughter and tell us if you would not use the treatment because of how it was tested.

Please reply with your choice. Me.....I value human life and health way, way, way more than that of any mouse and suggest you re-evaluate your priorities.

This is a wonderful break through - period.


I wonder if I could have used this on my armpits when I was having radiation treatment? The treatment made my skin rot and the skin that is there now is devoid of sweatglands and hair follicles. Also the skin on my shoulders is extremely dry and gets cold easily.

Mark-Toxic Pettit

Coder Guy, Bill Bennett, & Joseph J Shimandle, if you think about it. The ability for this to be used on male baldness would be the perfect tool to generate the money needed to push the technology farther into practical use for burn patients without using up government tax funded dollars for the refinement.

So if they can, I think commercializing it would be the most effective and the quickest way to get this to the point to help those burn victims that need it.

I understand that many socialists would not like commercializing this for profit, but the fact is capitalism has driven medical advancement farther than socialism or communism could ever imagine. Without it, we would still be living with medical technology of the 19560\'s.


I am a third degree burn victims. My accident happened May28,2011. I acknowledge the mouse who is hurt by testing the gel however I went through hell when they had to scrub my raw burned skin with what thought was a scrub brush. It took 3 hours to change my bandages and that had to be done 2 times a day. You could never understand the pain. I praise the mice who had to sacrifice so much for someone like me. I was in the burn ward for 3 months and am currently wearing pressure garments to push my scar tissue down however I am will always have scared arms, and face, whole chest, and legs and feet. I would hope this gel could be used on post scare healing.

Becky Barger-Hart

So what happened to Pixie dust (pig bladder)?? I thought that stuff would have been in use to replace all of these things by now. Especially as it has FDA approval.

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