Researchers Turn To Fat Cells To Heal Wounds Without Scarring

Scars have always been a part of wound healing but now, researchers are saying it may be possible to say goodbye to scarring for good.

For a study published in the journal Science, researchers from University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine and the University of California, Irvine's Pilkus Laboratory for Developmental and Regenerative Biology teamed up and discovered a method that transformed the most common cell type found in wounds into fat cells, a move previously believed to be not possible in humans.

Skin Cells And Wound Healing

Called adipocytes, fat cells are usually present in the skin but they are lost in the process of wound healing and scars begin to form. The most common cells found in wounds that are healing are known as myofibroblasts and were thought to be responsible only for scar formation. And when scars form, they don't contain hair follicles, which may be what makes them look abnormal in comparison to the surrounding skin.

The researchers used these characteristics to guide their work, changing myofibroblasts into fat cells to prevent scarring during wound healing.

Hair And Fat Development

"The secret is to regenerate hair follicles first. After that, the fat will regenerate in response to the signals from those follicles," explained Dr. George Cotsarelis, the study's principal investigator.

In the study, the researchers were able to show that hair and fat separately develop, although not independently. Hair follicles develop first and Cotsarelis' lab earlier discovered factors that were crucial to their formation. Now, the researchers have also discovered that there are other factors produced by regenerating hair follicles that prompt myofibroblasts in the surrounding area to regenerate as fat instead and not form scars.

Fat cells will not form without new hair follicles but once they do, they cannot be distinguished from older fat cells, which gives the healed wound a more natural appearance.

Converting Myofibroblasts To Fat Cells

Researchers were able to identify the mastermind behind myofibroblasts converting into fat cells: Bone Morphogenetic Protein. BMP is responsible for instructing myofibroblasts to regenerate as fat cells instead. The researchers said the conversion process is efficient and stable, and has been carried out in both mouse and human cells.

Other Uses Of Fat Cells

Aside from preventing scars from forming as wounds heal, fat cells can be helpful in other applications as well. For example, adipocytes are lost because of numerous conditions, such as HIV, and no effective treatment has been developed yet to address the loss. Fat cells are also naturally lost due to aging, which particularly becomes evident in the face. Cotsarelis said their method has the potential to fuel a new strategy for regenerating adipocytes in aged skin, which could give rise to new wrinkle or anti-aging treatments.

For their next steps, the researchers are taking two routes: the Cotsarelis Lab will be focusing on mechanisms promoting skin regeneration (particularly hair follicle regeneration), while the Pilkus Laboratory will be working on other aspects related to cell programming in wounds, examining other signaling factors, and conducting further experiments on human cells and scar tissues.

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