Speed Reads


Scientists grow genetically modified skin to save dying boy's life

A team of doctors in Germany and scientists in Italy were able to help a boy from Syria with a genetic disorder that left him with untreatable wounds covering 80 percent of his body.

The 7-year-old fled with his family from Syria to Germany in 2013, and by the time he started to receive treatment at Ruhr University Bochum, he was running out of time. He has a disease called junctional epidermolysis bullosa, caused by a mutation of the LAMB3 gene, which produces the protein that makes the top layer of skin connect to deeper layers underneath. The condition made his skin fragile and quick to blister, and his epidermis was still intact only on his head and a patch of his left leg. With all options exhausted, doctors reached out to scientists in Italy, asking if they could grow replacement skin for their young patient.

The scientists had regenerated healthy skin in a lab before, but never for as tall an order as this. They took epidermal cells from an area of his skin that did not have blisters, and genetically modified it in the lab, using a virus to correct the LAMB3 defect. The scientists then grew colonies of cells with corrected genes into sheets of genetically modified skin, and over two months, they grafted the skin to the patient. The grafts grew together and self-renewed, to the delight of the boy's medical team.

Once the epidermis has regenerated, the stem cells take over as in a healthy person, Michele De Luca at the University of Modena told The Guardian. Two years after the surgeries, the boy is doing well, does not take any medication, attends school and plays sports, and when he has a cut, his skin heals.