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WSU professor wants to unlock skin’s regenerative potential

Closeup of Ryan Driskell sitting at a desk with a computer.
Ryan Driskell

The research being conducted in the lab of Ryan Driskell at Washington State University in the School of Molecular Biosciences could dramatically alter the way serious skin wounds are treated in the future.  

Driskell, who was awarded the College of Veterinary Medicine Dean’s Outstanding Junior Faculty Research Award during the college’s annual Fall Research Symposium on Wednesday, Oct. 20, and his team believe human skin has the capability of regenerating without any noticeable scarring.

“Today, if you get a bad wound on your arm, most people’s approach would be to treat that arm to make it heal. But what happens if you are like Wolverine?” he asked, alluding to the Marvel superhero’s remarkable ability to heal. “You are inherently programmed to regenerate. Our hypothesis is you can actually make skin have the potential to regenerate before you get the wound – your skin is primed already to regenerate.”

Decades’ old research has shown humans have this capability while in their mother’s womb, but this ability seems to be lost prior to birth. The key is reactivating that trait – and Driskell’s lab has already demonstrated it is possible to reactive that ability in mice.

“All of us have the ability to regenerate, we just lose it when we are very young,” the professor said. “So, the idea is can we identify the elements that we had, and can we turn them back on during adulthood?” 

Finding inspiration

Driskell joined WSU in 2017 after spending a decade abroad completing his post-doctoral research in the United Kingdom, first at Cambridge University and then at King’s College London. 

Driskell had struggled in his first year of college at Eastern Michigan University and was even expelled for his academic shortcomings. His parents, however, encouraged him to enroll at Seminole Community College in Florida, and it was there he took his first biology course, sparking a dormant curiosity in science. A few years later, he successfully wrapped up his undergraduate studies at the University of Central Florida and was accepted into a doctorate program at the University of Iowa, where he researched gene therapy and lung biology.

At Cambridge – considered among the top research institutions – Driskell’s mentor, Fiona Watt, now the director for Stems Cells and Regenerative Medicine at King’s College London, suggested he study a specialized cell type in the skin called fibroblasts.

“She had this way of running a lab where if you had ideas and you wanted to follow them, she would help you do it,” Driskell said. “The main thing was that you liked what you were doing, you were happy doing it, and you were going to publish it and not waste time.” 

Driskell established a foundation for understanding how fibroblasts help to form and repair skin. In mice, he identified cell types that are lost during early neonatal life that helps their skin regenerate. He has been building on that framework since arriving in Pullman.

Promising advances

One of Driskell’s graduate students, Quan Phan, recently identified a gene called Lef1 in a special fibroblast associated with young skin. In baby mice, it acts like a molecular switch that controls the formation of hair follicles as they develop during the first week of life. The switch is mostly turned off after skin forms and remains off in adult tissue. When hair follicles are destroyed or removed in a wound, they do not normally reform, so one of the keys to getting skin to regenerate is reforming hair follicles.

When Driskell and his team took adult mice and developed a method to activate the switch in specialized cells, the rodents’ skin healed and formed hair follicles without scarring. The mice also seemed to age better and remain more physically fit.

“We were able to show skin can be primed to be regenerative before the wound happens by finding the right cell types and turning on the right genes,” Driskell said.

While much work remains, Driskell believes human skin has the same potential, and he recently received a grant of more than $1.5 million from the National Institutes of Health to fund his research.

“Our findings are exciting because this suggests that turning Lef1 on in the right cells in adult human skin can help turn scarring skin to regenerative skin,” Driskell said. “We have a way to go, but the results are promising.”

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