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Doctors May Have Figured Out a Way to Heal Scar Tissue

Fat cells to the rescue.

by Paul Spencer
Jan 9 2017, 5:00pm

Stegerphoto/Getty Images

Scars are nothing to be ashamed of, but if you no longer want to live with the evidence of a deep wound, you could have the option to reverse the damage one day soon. 

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and University of California may have discovered a way to make your skin heal without any trace of a puncture. The method introduces a natural growth factor present in human hair, which sets off a healing process "previously thought to be impossible in humans," the press release states. 

Healthy skin is covered in hair follicles that release proteins that trigger the production of fat cells. When you cut yourself deeply, however, the body heals itself using tougher, more durable cells called myofibroblasts. The resulting scar tissue does not contain any hair follicles and, as a result, is free of the fat cells that would otherwise make it look like normal skin.

Researchers didn't want to stop the production of myofibroblasts, which are critical to the healing process. Instead, they decided to transform the cells by isolating and adding the missing hair protein—known as a bone morphogenetic protein (BMP). "In essence, pure BMPs can act as a substitute for hair follicles," says Maksim Plikus, an assistant professor at the University of California-Irvine's Stem Cell Research Center and the study's lead author. 

The technique worked. The researchers observed that fat cells—which are called adipocytes—began to develop after the introduction of BMP, giving the skin a more natural, uniform look. The potential applications are also more than just cosmetic, since some HIV treatments can result in a loss of fat cells, the study authors note.  

The study was carried out with cells grown in a culture, but moving forward, Plikus says, his team hopes to inject BMP directly into scars in mouse studies, and eventually in human trials.