21 Jul Big Idea: Growing human skin for burn victims
By Maggie Ginsburg, Madison Magazine
B. Lynn Allen-Hoffmann was already growing human skin in an organotypic culture when she met the burn doctor who would change everything. The department of pathology and laboratory medicine faculty researcher and professor had been at UW–Madison 15 years when she made the serendipitous discovery that would ultimately lead to Stratatech, the Madison-based skin regeneration company she founded in 2000. In the last three years alone, Stratatech snagged a prestigious Tibbets Award; landed a five-year, $247 million federal government contract; and was acquired by publicly-traded Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals for an undisclosed sum.
“I worked on these cells for several years, not realizing their full potential,” says Allen-Hoffmann of StrataGraft, a regenerative skin tissue that mimics natural skin with compelling potential for burn victims. Although Allen-Hoffmann built her career based on her “passion” for skin and she’d “always been patient-centric,” it was a single conversation that “forever changed the focus of [her] professional efforts.” She visited the regional burn center at University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, one of 129 verified burn centers nationwide, where a thrilled burn unit nurse connected her with the center director.
“I gave him a big biochemical download on the work we’d done on these cells and he looked at me and he said, ‘You don’t know what I need,’ ” she says, smiling. “And he was right, I didn’t. But he did invite-slash-challenge me to watch him do a burn surgery, and that resulted in what I call my epiphany day.”
For eight and a half hours one fateful morning, Allen-Hoffmann watched the skilled surgical director graft skin onto a young Wisconsin farmer who’d suffered third-degree burns over 95 percent of his body. “This was an incredibly powerful personal experience for me,” she says. He’d already told Allen-Hoffmann about the limitations of autografting—the current standard of care in which healthy skin is cut from other parts of the body and transferred as a wound dressing to the burn area—including pain, infection, scarring, and limited availability of healthy skin. What he really needed were more tools to treat the approximately 30,000 Americans admitted to burn centers each year. Read more …