Young burn victim's death spurs soldier to develop new healing treatment

Inspired by a tragedy he witnessed in Afghanistan, a U.S. army veteran and biophysicist used a cotton candy machine to create an estrogen-based wound dressing.

U.S. vet and biophysicist uses cotton candy machine to create estrogen-based dressings to help close wounds

Kit Parker served two tours of duty in Afghanistan before returning to Harvard University to develop a potentially revolutionary treatment for large-scale burns and other skin wounds. (Submitted by Aaron Chapman)
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Kit Parker couldn't save the life of the Afghan boy who was brought to the U.S. military hospital in Kandahar, suffering from severe burns inflicted by his father.

But the haunting experience in 2003 of watching the five-year-old die would alter the course of the scientist's life — and give rise to a potentially revolutionary treatment for large-scale burns and other skin wounds.

After two tours of duty, Parker resumed his civilian role as a biophysicist at Harvard University, where is now working on a new type of wound dressing that uses nanofibres and estrogen to promote healing.

The research was published in the journal Biomaterials.

He spoke to As it Happens host Carol Off about how that tragic incident led to an innovative new healing method. 

Professor Parker, why did it matter so much to you to see this fibre-treatment developed? 

In 2003, my team sergeant Aaron Chapman and I were called to deal with a situation where a young boy had been burned over most of his body by a member of his family.

When we saw the boy, we knew there was so much surface area that was burned, he wouldn't survive. He was in agony. He was screaming. You could smell the burnt flesh.

So it was a particularly scarring event for me and Sgt. Chapman. It changed both of our careers. When I got to Harvard to start my laboratory, we started this wound-healing project. It was about a decade push to develop this, but it was really important to me that evil not have the last word on this.

Parker, seated left, with Sgt. Aaron Chapman, seated centre, in Afghanistan. (Submitted by Aaron Chapman)

What did the medics have in terms of treatments or tools?

They had the standard means of trying to treat the wound, maintain fluid balance in the child, cover the wounds. But at this point in time, the primary goal they had was pain control. He was in an extraordinary amount of pain.

Why did you think that could be some other way to treat this? 

When you start talking about any type of innovation, there's certainly an emotional content to it. I think what happened that night in Afghanistan was an emotional extreme. But it made me hypersensitive to people who suffered wounds, burns, and looking for an opportunity.

And so when we took a look at how you rebuild skin after a traumatic injury, the extracellular matrix — or protein networks — that hold skin together are basically nanofibres. And I had this idea that you could use a cotton candy machine to make nanofibres, but make the nanofibres out of proteins.

We had to modify the cotton candy machine. But the whole idea was to build a scaffold. And by putting the scaffold — or wound dressing — down on the burn or the wound, you help the body to rebuild itself. 

This cellulose/soy nanofibre scaffold can be used to accelerate wound healing and promote tissue restoration, Parker says. (Grant Gonzalez)

So what is fibronectin?

Fibronectin is an extracellular matrix protein. It's a little bit like silk. But it has a very strange structure in that there's a very tight hinge. And if you want to fold a fibre out of it, you have to unfold that hinge.

And we realized with the cotton candy machine that if we controlled the nozzle, we could induce an unfolding of this protein in the spontaneous formation of fibres. And that's what we were able to do. 

Electron micrograph showing fibronectin nanofibres used to accelerate wound healing and promote tissue restoration. (Holly Golecki)

And this would be applied on flesh like this [boy's]. Could he have been saved had you had this material?

I don't know. There's so many other things that come into play when you have someone who's been burned that extensively —  fluid loss, infection, shock.

If you survive all of that, do you want that skin to heal, to regrow? Yeah. And that's where our technology comes in.

You've also experimented using estrogen. Is that right?

We had been making soy nanofibres. One of my graduate students had this idea that we could use these same soy nanofibres for wound dressings. And it was a genius idea, because soy has phytoestrogen in it.

And in biology it's well-known that when a woman's estrogen levels go high, her wounds are more likely to close. And so the whole idea that you would build a scaffold for cells to grow on that would provide a local estrogen-like molecule to potentiate the closing of the wound was just a brilliant insight. 

Graduate students Seungkuk Ahnm, left, and Christophe Chantre, right, holding their nanofibre scaffolds in their lab at Harvard. (Michael Rosnach)

You so far haven't experimented on using nanofibres on people. You experimented on animals, is that right?

That's correct. We're preparing now to move into clinical trials and we hope that they'll be starting early next year.

What has this done to heal your mental wound from what you saw that night?

Well, the trauma of observing this was particularly harsh. You bury one ghost at a time after combat. Maybe we've started burying one. 

Written by Kevin Ball. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson.

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