Scientists have developed a breakthrough technique to grow artificial skin – using stem cells taken from the umbilical cord. The new method means major burn patients could benefit from faster skin grafting, the researchers say, as the artificial skin can be stored and used when needed.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there were approximately 410,000 burn injuries in the US in 2008, of which around 40,000 required hospitalization.

Patients who have suffered severe burns may require skin grafts. At present, this involves the growth of artificial skin using healthy skin from the patients’ own bodies. But the researchers note this process can take weeks.

“Creating this new type of skin using stem cells, which can be stored in tissue banks, means that it can be used instantly when injuries are caused, and which would bring the application of artificial skin forward many weeks,” says study author Antonio Campos, professor of histology at the University of Granada in Spain.

To create the new technique, details of which are published in the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine, the scientists used Wharton jelly mesenschymal stem cells from the human umbilical cord.

Previous research from the team had already led them to believe that stem cells from the umbilical cord could be turned into epithelia cells (tissue cells).

The investigators note that the stem cells are “excellent candidates” for tissue engineering due to their “proliferation and differentiation capabilities,” but that their potential to turn into epithelial cells had not been explored, until now.

The scientists combined the umbilical cord stem cells with a biomaterial made of fibrin – a protein found in the clotting of blood – and agarose – a polymer usually extracted from seaweed.

The researchers found that when tested in vivo, the combination of the Wharton jelly mesenschymal stem cells and biomaterial led to the growth of artificial skin and oral mucosa – a mucous membrane lining the inside of the mouth.

Explaining their findings, the researchers say:

Electron microscopy analysis confirmed the presence of epithelial cell-like layers and well-formed cell-cell junctions.

These results suggest that HWJSCs (human umbilical cord Wharton’s jelly stem cells) have the potential to differentiate to oral mucosa and skin epithelial cells in vivo and could be an appropriate novel cell source for the development of human oral mucosa and skin in tissue engineering protocols.”

Medical News Today recently reported on a study revealing that scientists have created “mini-kidneys” using human stem cells, while other research detailed the discovery of a gene that may be responsible for severe scarring of tissue.