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SA docs in world-class skin-graft advance

28 May 2015 - 02:10 By Tanya Farber

A team of South African doctors has made medical history by devising a cheap and effective way to grow skin for burn victims. Using an incubator and a small piece of skin, they have saved the lives of two burn victims on the brink of death.Niels, 16, (not his real name) was severely burnt in a petrol bomb attack and was "slowly dying" in hospital, said Wayne Kleintjes, the doctor who developed the technique with his team.Weighing only 19kg after three months in intensive care, Niels had little hope of survival."Using the Epicel method [used in the recent case of Pippie Kruger] was not possible because there is now a ban on bringing skin in from another country."Recourse to the Epicel technique costs R1.8-million and, in Kruger's case, relied on co-operation with a lab in Boston, in the US.The technique developed by Kleintjes and his team costs less than R1000 and the procedure can be done in a normal hospital room."We borrowed two incubators and harvested a skin biopsy of 3cmx7cm from his hip," said Kleintjes.The cultivated skin was grafted onto the body and Niels was able to leave intensive care only two weeks later.The second victim, a man of 53, had 63% of his skin burnt. He was injured while lying underneath a car, repairing it. He was soaked by a petrol leak and the fuel was ignited by a spark. He had only a 10% chance of survival but left intensive care four weeks after undergoing the new procedure.Kleintjes said the skin was grown in a number of sessions, each of about two weeks.Other skin transplant methods include allografts, using human donor skin, and xenografts, in which the skin of another species, usually a pig, is used. Both types of graft are usually rejected by the recipient after two to four weeks.Western Cape health MEC Nomafrench Mbombo described the technique as "a bold and ground-breaking innovation which is life-saving, cost-effective and done locally. It is a world-class innovation."The province's health department head, Beth Engelbrecht, said the technique was being patented to prevent it from becoming commercialised.The technology will be the subject of a research study by Kleintjes at Stellenbosch University...

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