I began my position as a lecturer and researcher in the Network for Functional Biomaterials (NFB), in National University of Ireland, Galway, in January 2009. This position is part-funded by DEBRA Ireland and much of our work is focused on an approach to help the wounds which are a constant feature of EB. The great potential of our research to help with wound healing in EB and other conditions, the support provided within the NFB and the assistance from DEBRA Ireland have meant that my group has rapidly expanded and now includes 3 postdoctoral researchers, 7 Ph.D. students, and 1 masters student.
Our work in the NFB is currently focused on developing a healing biological skin substitute for the recessive dystrophic form of EB. This treatment combines three advanced disciplines; material science, cell biology and gene therapy. These three areas are being combined to produce a therapy that provides a structural support for tissue regeneration, supplies beneficial factors to encourage wound healing and replaces the missing collagen VII gene in EB skin, to prevent more skin damage occurring in the future.
There are some very exciting approaches to gene therapy for EB currently in development around the world but they almost all require the use of viruses. This need for viruses is hampering the progression to clinical trials, due to technical issues and concerns over safety. Additionally, nearly all of the current gene therapy approaches require biopsies of the patient’s tissue that are then grown up in a laboratory and surgically grafted back onto the patient, which is not ideal. Our approach does not require the use of viruses and will be applied directly to the skin which should overcome these obstacles.
The area of EB research is a small family worldwide, but it is also close knit and the generous support provided by DEBRA Ireland provides great motivation. Having such a well-run charity providing a backing for our research is invaluable when working in such a complex area, in providing perspective and great encouragement.