Science Thinks It Can Regenerate Skin (Here’s Who’s Making It Happen)
Last year, when a figure skating coach in New Jersey was leaving the ice rink for the day, she was struck by a car. The impact of the crash left her leg pinned between the vehicle and a nearby telephone pole. After, when she underwent initial care procedures to heal the blood flow and multiple fractures, a large area of her thigh and knee was left without skin. In these situations, victims can easily lose the ability to function their limbs―often they have no choice but to amputate.
Enter one of Utah’s most groundbreaking biotech startups, PolarityTE. The company is currently striving to become the first to implement regenerative medicine into clinical practices in an attempt to replace current methods of tissue regeneration―the ability for humans to regrow skin lost in debilitating accidents, such as the one experienced by the figure skating coach. PolarityTE has made huge leaps in the field of regenerative medicine, and has seen successes in its ability to help burn victims and other patients have a chance at normal lives after devastating events.
Nikolai Sopko MD, chief scientific officer of PolarityTE explains that the company “is a commercial-stage biotechnology company founded in 2016 by physicians and scientists who built a team committed to transforming the lives of patients by discovering, designing, and developing a range of regenerative tissue products and biomaterials for the fields of medicine, biomedical engineering, and material sciences.”
Advances in skin grafting
Today, the types of skin grafting being employed by medical professionals have many constraints. For instance, full-thickness skin grafts are limited in their ability to be fully applicable to large wounds. Since they require pieces of skin to be taken from other areas of the patient’s body, they pose a threat to other areas of the patient’s skin and they cannot be used to cover extensive areas on a patient’s body where skin is missing.
Additionally, full-thickness skin grafts do not allow for the same level of mobility that the area was capable of before the skin was replaced. Similarly, split layer grafts (another type of skin grafting currently used) contract over time, limiting the patient’s range of motion. They also scar heavily. Neither of these types of skin grafting are ideal, and neither of these methods allow patients to return to a full state of wellbeing. For individuals who rely on their physical capabilities for their livelihoods and their basic mobility to perform functions in their everyday lives, the effects can be devastating.
“Traditional skin grafting is typically used in situations [similar to the accident with the figure skating coach], but [they] can lead to functional limitations such as the inability to fully move the joint,” explains Sopko. “Because of her profession as a figure skating coach, the patient opted for SkinTE to be used in the hopes that she would get functional skin back while potentially preserving her ability to skate again. Extraordinarily, her large wound was fully closed within 30 days and she is in rehabilitation, slowly working toward getting back on the ice.”
Without SkinTE, it’s clear that the patient may not have been as likely to heal in quite the same way. Her livelihood would have been deeply affected, and her life would never have been the same. SkinTE is PolarityTE’s flagship product, and, according to Sopko, it’s “the first product to regenerate fully functional skin. SkinTE is an autologous (from one’s own body), homologous (for the same tissue-type) human cellular and tissue-based product designed to regenerate full-thickness, functional skin for the repair, reconstruction, and replacement of a patient’s own damaged or defective skin. SkinTE has closed complex wounds with exposed bone, muscle, joint, and tendon. It has been used to treat a variety of skin defects, including chronic wounds, traumatic injuries, burns, surgical reconstruction, scars, and failed skin grafts.”
This product is already being distributed across the country so that patients can have access to its innovative capabilities, and the results are astounding. “SkinTE is currently available across the United States and to-date has helped more than 500 patients,” Sopko continues. “In addition, the product has demonstrated significant clinical impact with more than 45 presentations at medical conferences, and a number of peer-reviewed published studies in 2019, highlighting the important impact SkinTE is having on patient care.”
The ability to regrow skin
SkinTE is particularly revolutionary because it allows for the regeneration of skin to occur from a patient’s own skin: through the use of each patient’s own cells, the company strives to regrow functionally-polarized human skin. In this way, PolarityTE is flipping the script on regenerative medicine.
“Rather than approaching wound treatment with synthetic or foreign materials within artificially engineered environments, PolarityTE manufactures products from the patient’s own tissue and uses the patient’s body to support the regenerative process,” Sopko says. “From a small piece of healthy autologous tissue, the company creates an easily deployable product designed to regenerate the target tissues. PolarityTE’s innovative method is intended to facilitate and accelerate [the] growth of the patient’s tissues to undergo effective closure of cutaneous wounds via well-described regenerative processes.”
Thus, PolarityTE’s slogan, “Where Self Regenerates Self”®, proudly declares the company’s goal of utilizing the power of the individual’s own tissues to foster health and vitality for that same individual’s wounds. This scientific breakthrough is something that sets PolarityTE apart and allows the startup to sit at the nexus of technology and medicine. This breakthrough also gives tremendous meaning and motivation to its team. “Bringing a new therapy to the healthcare community with the ability to help the millions of patients suffering from devastating wounds is a dream we all share at PolarityTE,” Sopko says.
The successes that PolarityTE has been able to achieve so far hint at a future full of unprecedented opportunity. Regrowing skin is only the beginning. As the next decade unfolds, PolarityTE and many other biotech startups will continue to push the boundaries of what we’ve been conditioned to believe is possible. However, for now, the team at PolarityTE is currently healing wounds that would otherwise leave patients with limited mobility and disabilities.
“Some of the most inspiring successes we’ve witnessed with SkinTE have been the ability to restore normal-like function in devastating wounds, which has allowed many patients to return to normal life,” Sopko explains. “Many of the patients that have been treated with SkinTE have suffered debilitating wounds that previously affected their day-to-day life. Whether it’s a patient who can now fully rotate [his or her] arm or neck due to contraction relief when SkinTE has been used to replace keloid scars or disabled veterans returning to prosthetic use after pressure sore repair on a residual limb, we have continued to see great success with SkinTE―and great [impacts] on [our] patients’ lives.”
“We have also seen a wide variety of patients who were unable to walk due to diabetic foot ulcers, or pediatric patients with complex traumatic wounds that include exposed bone and tendons,” Sopko continues. “[These patients] have experienced progressive and durable wound closure with the help of SkinTE. When a provider informs us that a patient has returned to a normal life or has experienced a life-changing improvement because of SkinTE, there is no greater honor or success for us.”
Clearly, the team members behind PolarityTE are driven by their ability to change people’s lives every single day. Therefore, the company is unique not only in its product but also in its team’s goals and purposes. It’s no wonder that PolarityTE has already been able to accomplish so much: this high level of shared motivation is definitely a contributing factor when it comes to the company’s success.
With such an idealistic alignment of purpose, it’s no wonder that PolarityTE has been able to accomplish so much already. The future is certainly bright. With startups like this, we can all hope to unlock the highest echelons of human potential―even if these things only seemed possible in our wildest fantasies.