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Surgeons give boy new skin

Doctors treating a critically ill boy with a devastating skin disease used experimental gene therapy to create an entirely new skin for most of his body in a desperate attempt to save his life.

Two years later, the doctors report the boy is doing so well that he doesn't need any medication, is back in school and even playing soccer.

"We were forced to do something dramatic because this kid was dying," said Dr. Michele De Luca of the University of Modena in Italy, who got a call for help from the German doctors treating the boy.

The boy, then 7, was hospitalized in June 2015 with blisters on his limbs, back and elsewhere. He quickly lost about 60 per cent of the outer layer of his skin and was put into an induced coma to spare him further suffering. Doctors at Children's Hospital at Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, tried skin grafts from his father and donor skin, but all failed.

The boy had a rare, incurable skin disease called junctional epidermolysis bullosa, caused by genetic mutations. People with the disease lack critical proteins that attach the outer layer of the skin to the inner layer, resulting in fragile skin with almost constant blisters and open sores.

To fix that, the doctors took a small piece of the boy's skin from an area that was OK. In the lab, they added a normal version of his bad gene to his skin cells. They grew sheets of the boy's skin, in much the same way skin grafts are grown for burn victims.

In total, they grew close to a square meter of skin (9 square feet.) The lab-grown skin was then transplanted onto the boy in three operations, ultimately covering 80 per cent of his body. Ten days later, the new skin was already beginning to grow, De Luca said. After eight months, the doctors said that nearly all of the boy's skin had been generated by the modified stem cells.



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