Doctors in Germany saved a life with an experimental skin transplant. How could this change how we see implants in the future?

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As I read more about future developments, I see a life filled with those emphatic tears. I mean, scientists are growing body parts in a lab now. How long until we can just replace anything?

That’s why I couldn’t pass this story up when it crossed my desk. There’s nothing else quite as heartwarming or heart-wrenching as a story where doctors narrowly avoid a code blue. Especially when the subject is a child.

Let me get to the point. Recently, a child in Germany was the recipient of the world’s first transgenic stem cell skin implant. It’s a bit of a harrowing tale, but it has an awesome ending that could benefit other patients around the world.

Let’s start at the beginning.

A Drastic Plan That Came Together

To tell this story, we need to know a few things about the patient. Since we don’t have a name, we’ll call him ‘Harry’.

Harry was a newborn baby, born in early 2015 with a genetic skin disorder. His LAMB3 gene was faulty, which made his body unable to anchor the outer layer of skin to the inner layer.

As a result of his condition, Harry was missing skin. He was covered in blisters, and all of the antibiotics and painkillers in the world weren’t going to fix that. The baby spent five weeks in intensive care, but his doctors and parents refused to give up.

They opted to try an experimental procedure to save Harry’s life. First, they clipped off a tiny, precious square of existing skin. Then, they experimented with it until they found a solution.

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The idea behind the experiments was to inject a functioning LAMB3 gene into Harry’s skin via a virus. From there, they could grow those cells into sheets of synthetic skin. It took them about four months to do, but soon the skin was on the way to the hospital.

The treatment was a success. Seven and a half months after he entered the hospital, Harry left without a wound on his body.

So far, the treatment has been successful, and his gene-corrected skin seems to be accepting the transplants. Still, it will be important to monitor Harry’s health for decades to see if the transgenic stem cells are reliable.

If I were Harry, I’d take that deal, and thank medical science for it. Since I’m not Harry, though, I think it’s only proper to question whether or not this kind of treatment should be commonplace.

Anything to Avoid Code Blue

Skin made from transgenic stem cells is a very new prospect. We’ve all heard of things like 3D-printed human skin, but this takes it to the genetic level.

This means a couple of things. First, it brings up the debate over whether or not we should be altering aspects of the human genome. I think that in extreme cases such as Harry’s, though, it’s kind of a moot point.

After all, if I were his parent, I’d do anything to save his life.

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While this procedure was extreme, it wasn’t entirely unheard of. In 2017, we saw medical breakthroughs that reduced the risk rate of transplants and regenerate cells. In a way, this procedure is a combination of both of those things.

First, Harry’s transplant skin had to be accepted, which was easy because it was made from his own stem cells. Second, his body has to regenerate those skin cells on its own, which it seems to be doing thus far.

Cases like this one support the use of stem cells to ensure transplant acceptance.

How long before we see applications like these in our day to day lives? Who benefits the most from these technologies?

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