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Building human skin and blood vessels for wound repair

October 13, 2023

Melbourne researcher Associate Professor Geraldine Mitchell is growing skin flaps from stem cells to create a new, safer, and less painful way to repair dangerous skin wounds.

The Foundation is supporting her research through its Matched Funding Program to prepare for preclinical trials.

Vascular Biology Group Lab Members: (left to right) Ms Yi-wen Gerrand, A/P Geraldine Mitchell, Dr Anne Kong and Dr Kiryu Yap

Every year, 60,000 Australian patients have surgery to attach a healthy piece of skin tissue – known as a skin flap – over an area of damage resulting from a diabetic wound, skin cancer removal, a traumatic injury, or another cause.

“Skin flap surgery is in the top 20 of all operations completed in private and public hospitals in Australia, but it’s a tricky procedure that requires long stays in hospital and can lead to high complication rates for patients,” said Geraldine, Vascular Biology Group Co-Leader at St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research.

One of the challenges of skin flap surgery is that it requires healthy skin be taken from another area of the body. That creates a second wound site in addition to the one needing repair and both present an infection risk and pain for the patient. 

“This funding is helping us apply human stem cells to build an alternative kind of skin flap,” Geraldine said. “We hope to be able to construct three-dimensional tissue that is suitable for wound repair in real patients.”

Geraldine’s approach is designed to overcome another significant hurdle in skin flap surgery – the challenge of connecting the tissue flap with the body’s blood supply.

Geraldine and her colleagues are building a laboratory version of a skin flap from human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSC), which have the potential to become a wide array of different cell types. hiPSCs allow the team to grow the types of specialised cells in very large numbers needed to form the tissues making up a skin flap, including epidermal cells to form skin and endothelial cells to form blood vessels.

“Our work to date has applied hiPSCs to construct networks of small blood vessels known as capillaries, and layers of skin in the lab,” Geraldine says.

“It’s quite amazing – you can see the capillaries forming in the scaffold which we use as a physical structure to support their growth.” 

The lab is currently focused on creating prototype skin-flaps around eight millimetres in diameter, with plans to increase size and tissue complexity in the future. This will include building larger blood vessels that could be connected to a patient’s blood vessels in clinical applications.

Geraldine is working on the project with reconstructive and plastic surgeon Professor Wayne Morrison, bioengineer Dr Cathal O’Connell and vascular biology researcher Dr Anne Kong.

For a total research investment of $100,000, the National Stem Cells Foundation of Australia provided $50,000 towards Geraldine’s research, matched by the same amount from The O’Brien Institute Foundation.

(Image:Vascular Biology Group Lab Members: (left to right) Ms Yi-wen Gerrand, A/P Geraldine Mitchell, Dr Anne Kong and Dr Kiryu Yap.)

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