Skin's own cells offer hope for new ways to repair wounds and reduce impact of aging on the skin

December 11, 2013

Scientists at King's College London have, for the first time, identified the unique properties of two different types of cells, known as fibroblasts, in the skin - one required for hair growth and the other responsible for repairing skin wounds. The research could pave the way for treatments aimed at repairing injured skin and reducing the impact of ageing on skin function.

Fibroblasts are a type of cell found in the connective tissue of the body's organs, where they produce proteins such as collagen. It is widely believed that all fibroblasts are the same cell type. However, a study on mice by researchers at King's, published today in Nature, indicates that there are at least two distinct types of fibroblasts in the skin: those in the upper layer of connective tissue, which are required for the formation of hair follicles and those in the lower layer, which are responsible for making most of the skin's collagen fibres and for the initial wave of repair of damaged skin.

The study found that the quantity of these fibroblasts can be increased by signals from the overlying epidermis and that an increase in fibroblasts in the upper layer of the skin results in hair follicles forming during wound healing. This could potentially lead to treatments aimed at reducing scarring.

Professor Fiona Watt, lead author and Director of the Centre for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine at King's College London, said: 'Changes to the thickness and compostion of the skin as we age mean that older skin is more prone to injury and takes longer to heal. It is possible that this reflects a loss of upper dermal fibroblasts and therefore it may be possible to restore the skin's elasticity by finding ways to stimulate those cells to grow. Such an approach might also stimulate hair growth and reduce scarring.

'Although an early study, our research sheds further light on the complex architecture of the skin and the mechanisms triggered in response to skin wounds. The potential to enhance the skin's response to injury and ageing is hugely exciting. However, clinical trials are required to examine the effectiveness of injecting different types of fibroblasts into the skin of humans.'

Dr Paul Colville-Nash, Programme Manager for Regenerative Medicine at the MRC, said: 'These findings are an important step in our understanding of how the skin repairs itself following injury and how that process becomes less efficient as we age. The insights gleaned from this work will have wide-reaching implications in the area of tissue regeneration and have the potential to transform the lives patients who have suffered major burns and trauma.'
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This research was funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council and both Guy's and St Thomas' Charity and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Biomedical Research Centre at Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust and King's College London.

For further information please contact Katya Nasim, International Press Officer at King's College London, on 0207 848 3840 or email katya.nasim@kcl.ac.uk

Notes to editors:

King's College London

King's College London is one of the top 20 universities in the world (2013/14 QS World University Rankings), and the fourth oldest in England. A research-led university based in the heart of London, King's has nearly 23,500 students (of whom more than 9,000 are graduate students) from nearly 140 countries, and some 6,000 employees. King's is in the second phase of a £1 billion redevelopment programme which is transforming its estate.

King's has an outstanding reputation for providing world-class teaching and cutting-edge research. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise for British universities, 23 departments were ranked in the top quartile of British universities; over half of our academic staff work in departments that are in the top 10 per cent in the UK in their field and can thus be classed as world leading. The College is in the top seven UK universities for research earnings and has an overall annual income of nearly £450 million.

King's has a particularly distinguished reputation in the humanities, law, the sciences (including a wide range of health areas such as psychiatry, medicine, nursing and dentistry) and social sciences including international affairs. It has played a major role in many of the advances that have shaped modern life, such as the discovery of the structure of DNA and research that led to the development of radio, television, mobile phones and radar. It is the largest centre for the education of healthcare professionals in Europe; no university has more Medical Research Council Centres.

King's College London and Guy's and St Thomas', King's College Hospital and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trusts are part of King's Health Partners. King's Health Partners Academic Health Sciences Centre (AHSC) is a pioneering global collaboration between one of the world's leading research-led universities and three of London's most successful NHS Foundation Trusts, including leading teaching hospitals and comprehensive mental health services. For more information, visit: http://www.kingshealthpartners.org.

Over the past century, the Medical Research Council has been at the forefront of scientific discovery to improve human health. Founded in 1913 to tackle tuberculosis, the MRC now invests taxpayers' money in some of the best medical research in the world across every area of health. Twenty-nine MRC-funded researchers have won Nobel prizes in a wide range of disciplines, and MRC scientists have been behind such diverse discoveries as vitamins, the structure of DNA and the link between smoking and cancer, as well as achievements such as pioneering the use of randomised controlled trials, the invention of MRI scanning, and the development of a group of antibodies used in the making of some of the most successful drugs ever developed. Today, MRC-funded scientists tackle some of the greatest health problems facing humanity in the 21st century, from the rising tide of chronic diseases associated with ageing to the threats posed by rapidly mutating micro-organisms. http://www.mrc.ac.uk

The MRC Centenary Timeline chronicles 100 years of life-changing discoveries and shows how our research has had a lasting influence on healthcare and wellbeing in the UK and globally, right up to the present day. http://www.centenary.mrc.ac.uk

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is funded by the Department of Health to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research. Since its establishment in April 2006, the NIHR has transformed research in the NHS. It has increased the volume of applied health research for the benefit of patients and the public, driven faster translation of basic science discoveries into tangible benefits for patients and the economy, and developed and supported the people who conduct and contribute to applied health research. The NIHR plays a key role in the Government's strategy for economic growth, attracting investment by the life-sciences industries through its world-class infrastructure for health research. Together, the NIHR people, programmes, centres of excellence and systems represent the most integrated health research system in the world. For further information, visit the NIHR website (http://www.nihr.ac.uk).

King's College London

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