Brain Food: Growing Human Skin

Dec 5, 2013

Step into Robert Kellar's physiology and anatomy class at NAU and you'll learn how the human body works. But, step into his lab an you'll learn how to grow human skin. Dr. Kellar can teach plants how to manufacture human protein.

Dr. Robert Kellar in his NACET/NAU lab
Credit Bonnie Stevens/KNAU

"We kind of hijack the organism," Kellar says. "It's kind of a hostile takeover, to be honest." Kellar is leveraging the elastin gene. A protein that gives tissue, like skin, the ability to stretch and heal. He says, "You take a piece of DNA that's from somewhere else and you insert it into the host's DNA sequence. And now the organism will manufacture what you tell it to manufacture."

Inside his laboratory at the Northern Arizona Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology, Kellar and his students use 3 kinds of organisms to do this: Bacteria, yeast, and plants like Bok Choy, a Chinese cabbage.

"We electrospin it," Kellar says. "Basically, that's taking a protein, charging it across a distance, and it has an architecture that looks like a piece of gauze. But, it's not organized. It's a random fiber mesh and that's more of how the body's architecture looks."

Kellar says this scaffold of human protein can be made into sheets and cut into any shape to cover a large wound. That gauze-like product would then be seeded with the patient's own stem cells, extracted from fat just under the skin.

"The application for the medical community," Kellar says, "would be in patients that have severe burns or severe wounds over a large percent of their body. Right now, our standard of care is we will take donor tissue from that patient, we will skin graft from another location." Kellar goes on to say, "If they are severely burned or severely wounded, they may not have donor sites available."

In the field of regenerative medicine, Kellar and his students are building smarter scaffolds using human DNA technology.