Tissue-engineering the skin

Nature‘s most recent “Insight” special section is devoted to the biology of the skin.

I was puzzled that the Insight didn’t include an article devoted to skin aging. After all, skin is the organ where the most rapid and visible advances in anti-aging therapeutics are likely to be manifested: It’s readily accessible (since it’s on the outside of the body); the regulatory hurdles for approving topical treatments are far less stringent than those for medications taken internally; and — from a financial standpoint — there’s already a huge market for the various snake oils (some more scientifically motivated than others) currently purveyed by the global pharmaceutical industry.

This glaring omission aside, I was semi-heartened to see Sheila MacNeil‘s piece on tissue engineering of the skin:

Tissue-engineered skin is now a reality. For patients with extensive full-thickness burns, laboratory expansion of skin cells to achieve barrier function can make the difference between life and death, and it was this acute need that drove the initiation of tissue engineering in the 1980s. A much larger group of patients have ulcers resistant to conventional healing, and treatments using cultured skin cells have been devised to restart the wound-healing process. In the laboratory, the use of tissue-engineered skin provides insight into the behaviour of skin cells in healthy skin and in diseases such as vitiligo, melanoma, psoriasis and blistering disorders.

The list of maladies at the end of the abstract — all of which are noble inspirations for serious clinical effort — omits “chronic loss of elasticity and regenerative capacity due to advancing age.” Still, presumably some of the tricks of the tissue-engineering trade will be useful in the effort to reverse the ravages of time in the body’s largest organ.