February 18, 2006

Promising anti-scarring gel could prove boon to MUSC

Jonathan Maze  /  Post and Courier

Time might heal all wounds, but that process can be painfully slow and often leaves a scar.

Now, researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina are developing a treatment they hope will speed the healing process and reduce scar tissue in what some officials there say is among the most promising technologies to come out of the institution.

Those researchers have formed a company, First String Research, that could begin selling its first product in as little as two to three years. "This has been some of the most exciting work we've seen," said Grant Brewer, a research assistant with the university's Foundation for Research Development, which licenses MUSC research and helps form startup companies.

First String is one of the latest companies to emerge out of MUSC research. Economic development officials view the school, along with the University of South Carolina and Clemson University, as key in the state's efforts to boost its economy by creating more high-paying jobs. One of the areas for which the university has the highest hopes is in bioengineering, which involves creating replacements for missing or defective organs, or making devices that support them.

Today, bioengineering is a tiny part of the economy, but many experts expect it to grow rapidly because of its potential applications throughout the hospital. Rob Gourdie, a cell biology professor at MUSC and a bioengineering professor at Clemson, has been studying over the last decade how electrical signals in the heart are responsible for its beat. Cells use electrical signals to communicate with one another and coordinate events such as heartbeats or to repair open wounds. Gourdie developed a protein that can regulate this communication. The researchers are now trying to use this protein to improve the wound-healing process. They have developed a gel with the protein that can be applied to wounds. Some small animals have been healed with no scarring, said Gautam Ghatnekar, an MUSC post-doctoral fellow and co-inventor.

The researchers are preparing to test the gel on pigs before beginning human trials. Gourdie and Ghatnekar have lured Don Olson, a Charleston investor who helped take public Life Rate Systems, which made software that measures health care quality. He retired in 1995. He is now First Rate's chief executive officer. Olson believes Gourdie's research, and the new company, have considerable promise. He hopes to get a product on the market in two to three years.

The federal approval process for a gel is speedier than for an ingested drug. If the tests prove successful and the Food and Drug Administration approves the treatment, First Rate will focus initially on the plastic surgery market, where there might be a premium both on reduced scarring and faster healing of surgical wounds. Olson said the company has a market potential of $300 million by simply focusing on three procedures: breast augmentation, breast reduction and facelifts. There are 600,000 such surgeries a year.

The product also could be used to reduce scarring from other types of surgeries, such as a Caesarean birth. And it has potential to help burn victims and diabetics, whose wounds can often lead to amputations. Company officials believe the tissue regeneration technology could be used in other parts of the body, including perhaps the spinal cord and various organs. If successful, they said, the work could prove to be a big boon to MUSC.

"It has the potential to provide $50 million to $100 million in licensing revenue to MUSC," Olson said. "It really is a big opportunity."