Scientists Reprogram Cells in Mice to Heal Skin Wounds

Researchers from the Salk Institute have successfully used a new type of gene therapy to heal wounds in mice.
Jessica Miley

A new method for treating skin wounds in mice has been discovered by scientists from the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. The research involves tricking cells in wounds into becoming healing surface skin cells.

When a person or animal suffers a skin wound, epithelial cells, which make up the outer layer of the skin, move towards the affected area in order to seal the injury. This healing process is impaired with very large ruptures or in older people.

New therapy will treat ulcers without  surgery 

Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte and his colleagues have discovered a way to heal wounds from within that doesn't require neighboring epithelial cells to come to the rescue or for the patient to go through surgery. Their method involves using a genetic technique called 'cellular reprogramming' to alter the non-epithelial cells in the wounds.

The team injected viruses into the cells of non-healing ulcers in mice “to force the expression of four genes in these other [non-epithelial] skin cell types and turn them into epithelial cells,” said Izpisua Belmonte. The newly formed cells repaired the injuries in the mice in less than 28 days.

While there is still a long way to go before the method moves onto clinical trials with humans, Izpisua Belmonte is confident. "The current study is the beginning, and we believe that the timeframe for healing may be further shortened in the future," he said.

Research could help reduce rates of life-threatening ulcers

The study which is published in the journal Nature, explains that ‘large cutaneous ulcers are, in severe cases, life threatening. As the global population ages, non-healing ulcers are becoming increasingly common.’

This new technology could assist in treating this growing ulcer problem and be a faster and more effective treatment than surgery or skin grafts. Izpisua Belmonte, says the treatment would work as a type of gene therapy, the introduction of the viruses working to reprogramme the cells within the wound or ulcer.


“Currently, virus production is quite expensive, but cost should be less of an issue if we are able to scale up the production,” he said. If the research continues to be successful there is potential for this type of process to be used to heal injuries on organs as well.

Kevin Gonzales, who studies wound healing at the Rockefeller University in New York and was not involved in the findings, noted “this breakthrough is a significant contribution to the field, as it will serve as the foundation for improving gene therapy and reprogramming techniques for the skin, as well as for finding chemical alternatives for chronic wound treatment."

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