Research is under way at NUI Galway to develop a wound dressing for people suffering from the genetic skin blistering condition Epidermolysis Bullosa, (EB ).
Dr Wenxin Wang, the scientist leading the research team at the university, has been awarded funding from Science Foundation Ireland to undertake a four year project into EB and diabetic ulcers.
The finance will enable Dr Wang to hire one post-doctoral scientist and three PhD students for four years.
One of the main goals of the proposed research is to develop an advanced wound dressing system for the treatment of recessive dystrophic EB.
Robin Hood, the head of corporate relations at DEBRA Ireland, the charity which fundraises to find an effective treatment for EB and which put in place a permanent lectureship position at NUI Galway focusing on research into the condition, describes the funding allocation as “very positive”.
“Dr Wang has many years experience in the field of biomaterials and is now focusing his expertise on the development of a novel wound dressing for EB. His work has already generated excitement among the EB research community and has enormous potential to alleviate the burden of EB,” says Mr Hood whose daughter Alex died after battling skin cancer for 18 months in July 2008. [EB sufferers are highly susceptible to a very aggressive form of cancer from as early as their teenage years.]
“One of the major difficulties for people with EB is the fact that blisters frequently develop into painful wounds which are slow to heal. These wounds can become chronic and may not heal for months or years. They are then open to infection, extremely painful and very debilitating.
“In addition, these chronic wounds are the sites where an aggressive form of skin cancer can start. This form of skin cancer is a major concern for those with recessive dystrophic EB as it affects 80 to 90 per cent of those affected and results in a dramatically reduced life expectancy.”
The wound dressing being developed by Dr Wang will function not only to protect wounds and aid healing but will also contain copies of the collagen 7 gene missing in people with this form of EB.
“At room temperature, the dressing is in liquid form. However, upon being applied to wounds on the skin surface the solution quickly forms a gel to cover and seal the wound site. The researchers hope that these properties of the wound dressing, together with the delivery of the collagen 7 gene, will result in enhanced wound healing. This ‘smart dressing’ should also have direct applications for other forms of EB.”
Mr Hood, a former company owner who gave up his business in England to work as a voluntary fundraiser for DEBRA, says EB affects about 300 people in Ireland and half a million around the world. There is currently no cure for the condition.
“It is an agonisingly painful disorder; Alex use to wake up with as many as 40 blisters each morning from the friction of her turning over in bed during the night. She had to have her food pumped into her stomach as she blistered in her mouth.
“Sadly my dream of getting a cure for Alex never came true as she died. After battling with skin cancer for 18 months she lost her fight for life on 17th July 2008. Alex asked me to continue with my fundraising work so others would not suffer as she did. This is what I am continuing to do.
“The 47 DEBRAs worldwide have now put over €11 million into research and there is light at the end of the tunnel in the form of a new collagen injection. If it had been available three years ago Alex would still be alive. This injection called Fibroblast stimulates the wound healing process.
“The researchers have identified 14 of the genes responsible and can now cure EB in mice. Clinical trials on children with EB could happen in the foreseeable future. This will only happen with continued financial support.”
Mr Hood who now works for DEBRA Ireland says its financial situation is “desperate”. “In times of recession the smaller charities can be forgotten and thus become the underdog. The monies we raise go towards our programmes which include our patient support worker who travels around Ireland working with families, the EB nurse in Our Lady’s Hospital Crumlin and our research which includes a skin cancer research programme.”
For further information on DEBRA Ireland telephone (01 ) 4126924 or log onto www.debraireland.org