April 2021

AFOSR Advances Science of Wound Healing Technology

A live cell imaging system in the Rajapakse lab purchased with AFOSR-funded Defense University Research Instrumentation Program resources. Photo courtesy of Indika Rajapakse/University of Michigan.

Ground-breaking research into cellular reprogramming, made possible in part with funding from the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), is leading to technology that could heal wounds more than 5 times faster than the human body can heal naturally, vastly improving long-term healthcare outcomes for warfighters and veterans.

Indika Rajapakse, PhD, associate professor of computational medicine and bioinformatics and associate professor of mathematics at the University of Michigan, is researching ways to reprogram a person’s own cells to heal wounds faster. To get high-resolution views inside live cells to better understand the wound healing process, Rajapakse received funding from the Defense University Research Instrumentation Program to purchase a live cell imaging microscope. The microscope also assists in gathering data for an algorithm that can mathematically identify when best to intervene in a cell’s cycle to heal wounds; Rajapakse also was awarded a grant for research to improve this algorithm.

Cellular reprogramming is the process of taking one type of human cell, such as a skin cell, and reprogramming its genome so that it becomes a different kind of cell, such as a muscle cell, blood cell, neuron, or any other type of human cell. This is done using proteins called transcription factors. Transcription factors “turn on and off” various genes within cells to regulate activities such as cell division and growth, and cell migration and organization.

With the application of the right transcription factors, Rajapakse found that wounds healed more than 5 times faster than allowing the wounds to heal on their own. The next step is to figure out how best to apply them. The envisioned technology would act like a “spray-on” bandage, applying transcription factors directly to wounds. This method would convert exposed deep muscle cells into surface skin cells, which would mean a higher probability of successful healing than the current methods of skin grafting. Other potential challenge areas and medical applications include burn healing, skin grafts, organ transplants, etc.

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