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Heather Powell, PhD

Award Name Pilot Grant


Mechano-Modulation of Burn Wound Repair

The Ohio State University Center for Clinical and Translational Science has awarded Heather Powell, PhD, a pilot grant for her research in burn wound repair. She is looking to identify how external mechanical signals control wound repair after a burn injury.

Powell has her PhD in materials science engineering and became interested in translatable research during her postdoctoral work.

“It was really nice to feel like you’re having an impact on the human population,” she said.

Currently, many victims of large burns use compression garment therapy to prevent excessive scarring. Patients wear compression garments, made to be 10 to 15 percent smaller in diameter than the body, for up to 22 hours per day to reduce scarring.

Because the garments are uncomfortable, patient compliance is reported to be as low as 40 percent, Powell said.

Little is known about the optimal magnitude or duration for compression therapy.

To understand how mechanical signals result in reduced scarring, Powell is using a Red Duroc pig model to study the biological mechanisms behind compression therapy.

The study will first focus on determining how the therapy reduces scarring and then study alternate compression therapies which utilize pressure applied in shorter, cyclical periods.

“Our long term goal is to develop a new therapy for scar prevention that is both effective and promotes high compliance,” Powell said.

Pig skin is very similar to human skin, biologically speaking, and the Durocs specifically form excessive, thick scars which may benefit from compression therapy, Powell said.

Researchers developed a new device to generate burn wounds in the anesthetized pigs that utilizes a feedback loop to monitor and control the temperature applied to the skin in order to generate controlled, reproducible burn injuries. Pigs will wear compression vests and researchers will analyze the effects of compression garment therapy on the properties of the scar tissue.

With laser capture microdissection, researchers are able to analyze small biopsies of the scar tissue in order to analyze what is happening biologically.Researchers are able to pinpoint relative changes in each layer of the skin as a result of compression.

With non-destructive mechanical testing, Powell and her collaborators track how compression therapy alters skin pliability and elasticity in real time, without damage or pain to the pig.

Powell plans to make significant progress in the study over the summer, when they will begin to study the effects of the cyclic compression therapy.

The greatest challenge thus far was developing the proper kind of scars for treatment, Powell said.

“Learning how to make the full thickness burn wound in this particular model hadn’t been done before so it took us quite a bit longer than we’d anticipated,” Powell said.

These types of excessive scars had been previously formed using scalpel wounds, not burn wounds.

There has been no in-depth research on the biological mechanisms that control compression therapy, and no previous studies comparing basic therapy with a more dynamic therapy.

“By the end of this pilot study, we hope to have uncovered several key biological targets of compression therapy and have a better understanding of how magnitude and frequency of applied compression controls the physical properties of skin,” Powell said.

Powell said she hopes to use the data from this study to apply for a grant from the National Institutes of Health to work on developing a new therapy.

By Emily Tramte, Friday, May 21, 2010

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