UF receives $1 million to study skin regeneration without scarring

The University of Florida has received a $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation to tackle one of health care’s greatest challenges: to heal wounds without scarring.

After an injury, human skin repairs itself but does not regrow as before, leaving a scar. UF Genetics Institute researchers will examine cells on the molecular level to understand what genes may be responsible for allowing the skin of mammals to regrow without the presence of a scar, complete with new hair.

“Our work will investigate the only known instance of the natural regeneration of hairs and scar-free healing of skin in a mammal,” said Malcolm Maden, Ph.D., a professor of biology in the UF College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “It really is astonishing behavior.”

Maden and colleague William Barbazuk, Ph.D., an associate professor of biology, are the first to study this unique regenerative behavior in the skin of the African spiny mouse. After an injury, this species of mouse can completely regenerate its skin without any scars and regrow its hair.

Previously, Maden’s research focused on the regenerative behaviors of various animals, including axolotls, a type of salamander that can regrow tails or limbs, but there has never been a way to study naturally occurring tissue regeneration in a mammalian species — until now.

“The natural ability to regenerate and regrow tissues that we have found in amphibians, like axolotls, may very well be possible in mammals. The mechanisms for regrowth are looking quite similar across the vertebrate spectrum,” said Maden. “The Keck grant allows us to study new ideas and take the initial steps in a project that is both transformative and translational.”

Translating the findings from a little-known mouse species to human scarring could provide valuable information for wound healing and the clinicians who treat such cases. For example, chronic skin wounds, which are injuries that do not heal after a predicted amount of time, can cause long-term and complicated health issues such as repeated infections and the need for pain management.

Alternately, debilitating scarring can require long-term management and can contribute to mental health care costs when scars significantly alter appearance, like burns.

Most people don’t appreciate the impact that excessive scarring of wounds in skin and other tissues has in both the cost to the health care system and the devastating effects on patients, said Gregory Schultz, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Wound Research in the UF College of Medicine and advisory board member for the Keck Foundation grant.

“Dr. Maden’s research may unlock the molecular secrets that stimulate tissue regeneration in mammals using the unique mouse model,” he said.

The W.M. Keck Foundation is known for funding high-risk, high-return projects that make significant impacts, create new fields of research or challenge current thinking. UF holds another Keck Foundation grant from 2012 that was awarded to Laura Ranum, Ph.D., director of the Center for NeuroGenetics, to challenge known mechanisms of how proteins are made and the relationship of proteins to inherited disease.

“The great thing about the Keck Foundation is that they fund projects in their infancy,” said Maden. “The gift allows us to explore new ideas and take initial steps. Our ability to stimulate the regeneration of mammalian tissues is more likely than previously thought.”

Based in Los Angeles, the W. M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 by the late W. M. Keck, founder of the Superior Oil Co. The Foundation’s grant making is focused primarily on pioneering efforts in the areas of medical, science and engineering research. The Foundation also maintains an undergraduate education program that promotes distinctive learning and research experiences for students in the sciences and in the liberal arts, and a Southern California Grant Program that provides support for the Los Angeles community, with a special emphasis on children and youth from low-income families, special needs populations and safety-net services. For more information, please visit www.wmkeck.org.