Hair implanting could end pain of skin grafts
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Hair implanting could end pain of skin grafts

Surgeons treating an 11-year-old boy horribly burnt in a playground attack, have developed a revolutionary treatment which could end the need for painful skin grafts.

They have found that hair follicles implanted into the synthetic tissue on wounds can prompt the regrowth of skin. The technique is quicker than the current method of skin grafts - when skin is taken from one part of the body and placed on the damaged area.

It will also reduce the suffering of burns victims. At present, after the pain of the initial accident they undergo skin grafts which are akin to inflicting deep grazes. Simon Weston, the Falklands war veteran who received 50 per cent burns and who now campaigns for fellow burns victims, described it as "fantastic news" and a breakthrough in the treatment of future victims.

He said: "After the horrendous pain of being burnt, I had to feel the terrible pain of having healthy skin removed for grafts, which also increases the risk of infection. If this eradicates the need for skin grafts, it's an amazing leap in medicine. It might even mean that they can put hair on the back of my head."

The technique may be used on Alfred, who was set alight allegedly by a 12-year-old schoolmate in Gillingham, Kent, UK. He suffered 70 per cent burns and so can only have a limited number of skin grafts. Jim Frame, a consultant burns surgeon, at the St Andrews Centre in Chelmsford, Essex, UK, who operated on the boy yesterday, and Naiem Moiemen, another specialist, perfected the technique while working on the scalp of a badly burnt patient last year.

They wanted to solve one of the biggest problems in treating a victim who has suffered more than 50 per cent burns - that they have little healthy skin which can be grafted on to the damaged area. When skin is badly burnt, the top layer - the epidermis - and the deeper layer, the dermis, are burnt away along with hair follicles and sweat glands.

Current skin grafts do not replace these vital structures, and take up to three months to settle. The surgeons in their quest for an alternative, decided to use a known synthetic tissue substitute called "Integra" which is made from shark and cow cartilage. When placed on top of raw wounds, the synthetic tissue forms a lattice to allow healthy blood vessels and host cells to grow and become intertwined with the artifical tissue.

Under current procedures, the use of Integra has to be complemented by a second operation to provide a graft of skin cover over the dermis, or deeper layer of skin. The two surgeons decided to see what would happen if they inserted hair follicles into the new dermis which had grown into the synthetic product.

Using the technique on the head of a 24-year-old burns victim, they found that the cells from the hair follicles grew upwards and provided a new layer of top skin - or epidermis - over the wounded area. When they examined the results two weeks later they discovered that the top layer of skin had grown around the hairs. It had covered the whole of the victim's scalp, without the need for a second operation to apply a skin graft.

Mr Frame said that the new technique will also be used to give hair to burns victims. "One of the most impressive aspects of this new technique was the ease with which hair was able to grow - growing more than a centimetre in a few weeks. It gives hope to many people who believed they would never be able to regenerate hair from burnt skin." He also hopes that sweat glands can be inserted into the new skin.

The new technique, which was explained to American scientists in Hawaii in February, will be presented to the British profession in a medical journal later this year.

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