A team of researchers in Charleston is working to develop a gel that could stop scars from forming. FirstString Research, a spin-off business of the Medical University of South Carolina, is testing the gel, which uses a peptide that blocks scar-creating cells from entering a wound.
Researcher Dr. Gautam Ghatnekar was a postdoctoral student on an MUSC team studying how embryonic heart cells develop in the womb when it developed the gel in 2004. Realizing its potential, Ghatnekar partnered with Dr. Robert Gouldie to create FirstString– an independent company which sought to further test the gel. It was started up with grants from the National Institute of Health and with assistance from the South Carolina Research Authority.
But, for the non-scientists among us, what is a peptide? Ghatnekar explains it is a collection of amino acids.
Amino acids are building blocks for any living organism. Our body is made up of amino acids. Think about these amino acids as bricks. A peptide is a small series of these bricks.
The peptide created by FirstString blocks scar-forming cells from migrating into the wound. Gautnekar says the end result is that doctors could apply the gel and a surgical wound could heal itself completely without leaving a scar.
By inhibiting these scar-forming cells from migrating… it shifts the balance from healing by scarring to healing by regeneration. That’s the fundamental basis of this.
The company received a second patent for the gel earlier this month. FirstString is also moving forward with clinical trials after its first test in Switzerland showed positive results. The company hopes to begin a second trial next month using 270 patients, mostly those recovering from surgeries or suffering from foot ulcers. A third, larger trial would be needed before the gel could be approved by the FDA and offered to the public.
Ghatnekar said there’s tremendous potential for a drug that could stop scars from forming. He pointed to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who are scarred by explosions and other injuries.
However, another possible benefit could be for those suffering from diabetic foot ulcers that don’t go away. Ghatnekar says the drug could help heal the ulcers, which can cause severe damage to a person’s foot.
Imagine if, when you’re walking on the street, you have a pebble in your boots. You will feel it and you will take it out. If you have diabetic neuropathy, you will not feel it. I’ve seen people walking into the clinic with glass pieces stuck in their feet and they have no idea.
Neuropathy causes the ulcers to remain stuck in a constant inflammatory healing process, preventing the necessary cells from repairing the skin. Ghatnekar says the FirstString drug snaps the wound out of the inflammation phase and works to heal it.