In a recent discovery by Washington State University, researchers have identified a genetic factor that allows adult skin to repair itself like the skin of a newborn baby. This discovery could lead to better skin wound treatment and aid in the prevention of some ageing processes in the skin.
This study was published in the journal eLife on 29th September 2020. The scientists identified a factor that functions as a molecular switch in the skin of baby mice. This controls the formation of hair follicles as they develop during the initial weeks of life.
This switch is turned off when skin forms and remains off in adult tissue. The switch was activated in specialized cells in the adult skin of mice, and it was found that their skin was able to heal wounds without scarring. The repaired skin included fur and could make goosebumps. Adult human scars don’t have this ability.
Ryan Driskell is an assistant professor at Washington State University’s School of Molecular Biosciences. He said that they were able to take this ability of the young and neonatal skin to regenerate and transfer this ability to adult skin. “We have shown in principle that this kind of regeneration is possible.”
Regeneration in Adult Skin
Regenerative abilities aren’t found in mammals, unlike other organisms such as the salamander. Salamanders can regrow an entire limb and also regenerate their skin. The WSU study suggests that in order to find the secret to human regeneration, we might have to study our early development.
Ryan Driskell says, “We can still look to other organisms for inspiration, but we can also learn about regeneration by looking at ourselves. We do generate new tissue, once in our life, as we are growing.”
The scientists used single-cell RNA sequencing, which is a new technique to compare genes and cells in adult skin and developing skin. They found a transcription factor in developing skin, which is a protein that binds to DNA and influences the switch factor in genes being turned off or on. This factor, called Lef1 was associated with papillary fibroblasts. Papillary fibroblasts are developing cells in the layer of skin underneath the surface. It is called papillary dermis and gives the skin its tension and youthful appearance.
The researchers at Washington State University activated this Lef1 factor in specialized compartments of adult skin of mice. This increased the ability of the skin to regenerate wounds with lesser scarring, even growing new hair follicles that could make goosebumps.
Driskell got the idea to study the early stages of mammal life and their ability to regenerate skin after getting to know about the work of Dr Michael Longaker of Stanford University. Longaker and his colleagues, while performing life-saving surgeries in utero, observed that when babies are born, they do not have any scars carried over from the surgery.
A lot of further study needs to be done before this discovery can be applied to human skin. Driskell said that this is a foundational advance. The research team of WSU will continue to work and understand how Lef1 and other factors work to repair the skin, especially with the support of a new grant from the National Institutes of Health. Driskell lab has also created an open and searchable web resource for RNA sequence data to help other scientists in further research.
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