Researchers Discover Genetic Factor That Repairs Skin Wounds Without Scarring

'An image of a regenerating skin wound with hair follicles that can make goose bumps. The green lines are the muscles attached to individual regenerating hairs so that they can stand up'. Credit: Washington State University

Jack Dunhill 09 Oct 2020, 16:11

So it begins. In a year of firenados, zombie storms, and ancient diseases emerging from the ice, animals' habitats are under unprecedented threat. In the face of adversity, nature may be in need of super-animals capable of weathering the storm – and it looks like researchers from Washington State University have got it covered. 

According to recent research published in eLife, scientists have identified a genetic factor that allows mice to regenerate their skin without scarring, creating skin akin to that of a newborn. When switched on, the factor allows the cells to heal wounds, even regrowing hair follicles and making goosebumps. As the factor is conserved across both humans and mice, it's possible the results may be similar if translated to humans.

While science doesn’t quite lend itself to creating our very own Wolverine just yet, it does have potential implications for wound care.

For the study, the team probed neonatal skin cells and found a transcription factor (a molecule that controls the reading of DNA) called Lef1 that primes the cells to produce new skin. However, this transcription factor is turned off during adulthood. Theoretically, if this switch is activated again, the skin would regenerate as if it were on an infant.

To explore this possibility, the researchers created mice with mutations that activate this factor in adulthood and gave them a small wound. The wounds healed and in their place grew new skin with fur.

“We were able to take the innate ability of young, neonatal skin to regenerate and transfer that ability to old skin,” said Ryan Driskell, an assistant professor in WSU’s School of Molecular Biosciences, in a statement. “We have shown in principle that this kind of regeneration is possible.”

According to the press release, inspiration struck Driskell after learning of a Stanford University doctor, Dr Longaker, who discovered that babies who undergo in-utero surgeries emerge from the womb with no scars. Therefore, there must be a mechanism behind creating new skin in infants that adults do not possess. Driskell believes Lef1 could be that mechanism in mice, although there is much more to discover, including whether it acts the same within humans.

"We can still look to other organisms for inspiration, but we can also learn about regeneration by looking at ourselves," said Driskell. "We do generate new tissue, once in our life, as we are growing."

Should Lef1 have implications in humans, it could be utilized in post-surgery and wound care in the future. Lef1 is associated with papillary fibroblasts, which are cells that develop just below the surface of the skin and make it look youthful by maintaining tension. If fully understood, Lef1 could potentially be leveraged into preventing skin aging as a result of scarring. 

Skin regeneration research is still in its infancy and it is yet to be seen how well the research will translate to humans. Driskell and colleagues are now investigating whether or not Lef1 is a viable route for skin repair in humans.

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