Scarless Wound Healing Breakthrough: Researchers Turn Myofibroblasts in Wounds into Adipocytes

January 5, 2017
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Scientists can now transform myofibroblasts found in wounds into adipocytes, paving the way toward scarless healing.

Researchers began this work at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, which led to a large-scale, multi-year study in connection with the Plikus Laboratory for Developmental and Regenerative Biology at the University of California, Irvine.

Adipocytes, which don’t cause scarring, are normally found in the skin, but they’re lost when wounds heal as scars.

The study showed hair and fat develop separately but not independently. Hair follicles form first, and the researchers previously discovered factors necessary for their formation. Now they’ve discovered additional factors actually produced by the regenerating hair follicle to convert the surrounding myofibroblasts to regenerate as fat instead of forming a scar. That fat will not form without the new hairs, but once it does, the new cells are indistinguishable from the pre-existing fat cells, giving the healed wound a natural look instead of leaving a scar.

“Essentially, we can manipulate wound healing so that it leads to skin regeneration rather than scarring,” says George Cotsarelis, MD, the chair of the Department of Dermatology and the Milton Bixler Hartzell Professor of Dermatology at Penn, and the principal investigator of the project, in a news release. “The secret is to regenerate hair follicles first. After that, the fat will regenerate in response to the signals from those follicles.”

As they examined the question of what was sending the signal from the hair to the fat cells, researchers identified a factor called Bone Morphogenetic Protein (BMP). It instructs the myofibroblasts to become fat. This signaling changed what was previously known about myofibroblasts.

“Typically, myofibroblasts were thought to be incapable of becoming a different type of cell,” Dr. Cotsarelis says. “But our work shows we have the ability to influence these cells, and that they can be efficiently and stably converted into adipocytes.” This was shown in both the mouse and in human keloid cells grown in culture.

“The findings show we have a window of opportunity after wounding to influence the tissue to regenerate rather than scar,” adds the study’s lead author Maksim Plikus, PhD, an assistant professor of Developmental and Cell Biology at the University of California, Irvine. Plikus began this research as a postdoctoral fellow in the Cotsarelis Laboratory at Penn, and the two institutions have continued to collaborate.

Beyond Scarless Wound Healing: Anti-Aging Potential

The first and most obvious use would be to develop a therapy that signals myofibroblasts to convert into adipocytes – helping wounds heal without scarring, but the increase of fat cells in tissue can also be helpful for more than just wounds. Adipocyte loss is a common complication of other conditions, especially treatments for HIV, and right now there is no efficient strategy for treatment. “Our findings can potentially move us toward a new strategy to regenerate adipocytes in wrinkled skin, which could lead us to brand new anti-aging treatments,” Cotsarelis says.

The Cotsarelis Lab is now focusing on the mechanisms that promote skin regeneration, especially with respect to hair follicle regeneration. The Plikus Laboratory is focusing on other aspects of cell reprogramming in skin wounds. Researchers there are examining the role of other signaling factory beyond BMP as well as conducting further studies using human cells and human scar tissue.

The findings appear online in the journal Science.

PHOTO CAPTION: New fat cells regenerate in the center of the wound from myofibroblasts, principal scar cells, shown here in blue.

PHOTO CREDIT: Maksim Plikus lab / UCI

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