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Investigating Injuries, Improving Healing

New research from The Rockefeller University shows that skin forms memories after an injury or inflammatory response, allowing it to heal faster when injured in the future. The researchers found that cuts, burns and other injuries to the skin are experiences that leave long-lasting memories on the stem cells that are responsible for healing the skin.

When the skin is injured, the body kicks off an inflammatory response that wakes up the stem cells near the injury site.

Inflammation causes the location of the injury to become swollen, hot and painful as the body works to stop damage and start repair. These cells go to work repairing the skin, and once the skin is fully restored, return to their dormant state until the next injury.

Quicker Response

The study found that when the area is injured again, the stem cells respond more quickly.

The body's ability to train itself to heal faster after injury or illness is something medical researchers have known about for a while, but the Rockefeller researchers wanted to investigate the response of the skin in particular because of its role as the body's defense system.

The scientists running the study used mice in their skin-healing experiment. During their research, they found that the skin cells in the outermost layer, the epidermis, do not have the chance to build up memory for future healing because they shed continuously.

Beneath the epithelium, the researchers found what they were looking for: stem cells that stuck around. These cells function to replace skin cells lost as a part of routine shedding and repair skin cells damaged by injury or inflammation.

The experiment shows that injuries healed twice as fast in skin that had previously experienced inflammation than in skin that had not. Researchers found that this held true for skin that experienced inflammation as long as six months earlier in the mice, a period equal to 15 years for humans.

The researchers determined the increase in healing time was a result of the previous experience the stem cells had making repairs.

Beneath the Surface

The researchers found that when skin is injured and becomes inflamed, the way the stem cells function changes physically. Specific sites open up within the chromosomes of the cell to make access to particular genes faster. These sites stay open even after the skin is repaired, which allows them to work more quickly when needed in the future.

One particular gene that is accessed during the healing process is Aim2. The function of Aim2 is to sense damage and potential danger. When Aim2 detects an injury, it sends the call to the body to start the inflammation response that wakes up the stem cells and directs them to the wound.

Additionally, stem cells get help finding the site of injury from growth factors.

"Growth factors serve as a sort of chemical 'text message' for stem cells. They are a beacon for the stem cells to find the injury and also trigger the body to send things like blood and oxygen to the injury site," said Dr. Bill Johnson, M.D.

Johnson is a Dallas, Texas, physician who uses adipose fat stem cell therapy to treat patients with chronic inflammation from an injury or illness.

"Many people living with an autoimmune disease experience chronic and painful inflammation. Stem cell therapy reduces inflammation and returns the cells to normal function," Johnson said.

Johnson is excited about the Rockefeller findings because it could lead to the future development of improved treatments for wound care and a better understanding of conditions that cause chronic inflammation, like psoriasis, Crohn's disease and scleroderma.


Rockefeller University. "Inflammation trains the skin to heal faster." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 18 October 2017.

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