The combined efforts of American and Israeli researchers have resulted in a non-invasive technology that shows early promise in its ability to limit the development of burn scars and help provide smoother regeneration of burned skin. The technology in question targets “hypertrophic scars”, which are caused by excessive collagen, and makes use of short, pulsating electrical fields.
In Brief: Burns and Scars
Hypertrophic scars tend to form in the wake of burns, especially if deeper layers of the skin are affected. Normally, the body mends skin using collagen in a way that maintains a rough balance between the old and new fibers. With hypertrophic scars, the level of injury throws off this balance and an excess of collagen develops. Hypertrophic scars are not dangerous, but they are often raised, itchy, sore, or otherwise inflamed. This can add distinct quality-of-life issues, especially if they are on the joints. Burn scars can also be disfiguring and lead to depression or other problems related to self-image.
The Electrical Field Study
Since hypertrophic scars can thicken and grow for several months after appearing, the researchers wanted to see if “electroporation”—the use of electric pulses to open up cell membranes—could help reduce the collagen buildup and limit the size of the scar. Lab rats were burned and given five therapy sessions over the course of six months (one every 20 days) and were monitored to see how the scar area developed.
It was found that rats given sessions of 200 pulses at 250 volts, for a duration of 70 milliseconds, with a three-hertz frequency, ended up with a 57.9 percent reduction in scar area compared to the rats that saw no treatment. In other words, the scars of the treated rats were a little over half as big as the control group.
Testing scar treatments with lab rats is trickier than other techniques because, as the authors note, rats are not actually capable of developing hypertrophic scars. Although this limited the ability to assess the treatment’s capabilities towards that specific scar type, the positive results are enough to move the research into the next stage. The researchers are currently raising money to develop a human-scale device for moving in to clinical studies.
No current method exists that can completely prevent burn scars from forming. Existing non-invasive techniques for limiting the size of scars include the use of silicon gel or compression dressings. More invasive methods include surgical excision of the burned skin or laser therapy. No method to date has shown more than a modest improvement on scar development, so any new discoveries in this field would be a boon for trauma and regenerative medicine.
“Novel, non-invasive technology may prevent burn scars,” Israel 21c web site, August 15, 2016; http://www.israel21c.org/novel-non-invasive-technology-may-prevent-burn-scars/, last accessed August 15, 2016.
Golberg, A., et al., “Preventing Scars after Injury with Partial Irreversible Electroporation,” Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 2016; http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jid.2016.06.620.