Wellcome support for synthetic skin that instructs body how to repair itself

12 May 2015

"Imagine a car accident victim who has major injuries or a patient who has just had a piece of skin containing a cancerous lesion removed. The surgeon places our tropoelastin mesh on the wound and it not only instructs the wound how to repair, it helps accelerate the healing. It could reduce the need for hospital stays and for skin grafts."

Professor Tony Weiss, from the University of Sydney, is describing the amazing potential of a biomedical technology which mimics tropoelastin, the self-assembling elastic protein which allows the body to repair elastic tissues in the skin, artery, bladder and lung.

Development of the synthetic version of the protein that Professor Weiss and his collaborators have created has received a $1 million Wellcome Trust Translation Fund Award.

"Tropoelastin is a building block of human biology and the more we learn about how it assembles then the greater the range of applications we can achieve. We are replicating human tissue and its behaviour - by making it in the laboratory and not by extracting it from a living organism," said Professor Weiss who is from the University's Charles Perkins Centre and School of Molecular Bioscience.

"Its potential to benefit the sick and injured, from cardiac and cancer patients to accident victims, from burns victims to wounded children, is incalculable."

"This program enables us to fast-track the technology to clinical trials within two years. The Wellcome Trust is known for funding research which is revolutionary not evolutionary - they look for projects that can leap from the lab to helping people, with immediate and major benefits."

It took Professor Weiss and his collaborators over fifteen years of work to tame this 'wild animal' of the protein world. They eventually succeeded in painstakingly producing milligrams of synthesised elastin and successfully transitioning this process to industrial scale, enabling them to produce kilograms.

He is also the founding scientist of the pioneering medical company Elastagen, whose product development, based on tropoelastin, ranges from dermatology and scar remodelling to tissue repair and surgical implants and glues.

Through separately funded research, Professor Weiss and his colleagues continue to explore additional applications of the tropoelastin protein, including how to repair and build blood vessels and other elastic tissues.

Last month they also received a National Health and Medical Research grant of $587,000 to develop an adhesive elastic bone filler that uses tropoelastin. It sets at body temperature and rapidly restores mechanical performance at fracture sites.

"Australian researchers are sometimes discouraged by the 'tyranny of distance' being a hurdle to attracting major overseas funding so the fact we are now being supported by two overseas grants, at the same time as receiving Australian funding, is heartening," said Professor Weiss.

Funding for Professor Weiss's research includes grants from the National Institutes of Health in the USA, the Australian Research Council, National Health and Medical Research Council and Cooperative Research Centre.

In addition to funding received from NSW Health and the Wellcome Trust, Elastagen has received investment from GBS Venture Partners and Brandon Capital Partners and has been supported by both state and federal government programs, including the NSW Health Medical Device Fund.

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