Chance discovery of 'immortal skin' holds medical promise

MADISON - From a routine study of the life span of human skin cells, a University of Wisconsin-Madison research project gave rise to an astonishing accident: A line of skin cells that simply wouldn't die.

The research team witnessed a rare "spontaneous mutation" when a small cluster of cells in a petri dish continued to actively divide. The amazed scientists continued to grow this unique cell line over the course of a year without the cells showing any signs of slowing down.

Today, this laboratory anomaly has proven to be more than skin deep. The effort has grown into a patented product, a full-fledged commercial venture and a series of new medical research pursuits.

A new UW-Madison spin-off company called Stratatech, housed at University Research Park in Madison, is actively pursuing a number of markets for its patented "immortal human skin," including the prospect of much-needed tools for treatment of severe burn patients.

"There are a lot of opportunities dovetailing out of this single basic discovery that are very exciting," says Lynn Allen-Hoffmann, a professor of pathology in the UW-Madison Medical School and managing director of Stratatech.

"It would be a career dream come true to develop some kind of off-the-shelf product that would be available to doctors," she adds.

Clinical applications are several years away, but the company recently received promising news: Its first animal tests confirmed that the novel skin will cover and heal superficial wounds. Most importantly, Allen-Hoffmann says the cells grow into distinct stratified layers to become essentially no different from normal skin.

"That was the really big finding in all this, the critical piece of information we needed to prove," she says. "These cells proved to be incredibly normal."

The unique tissue is comprised entirely of keratinocyte cells, which make up the vast majority of human skin cells. Allen-Hoffmann says the cells can be genetically engineered to f

Contact: Lynn Allen-Hoffman
University of Wisconsin-Madison

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