March 14, 2019

Calgary firefighters renew $1M funding of skin regeneration research at UCalgary

Gift supports stem cell studies aimed at regrowing healthy new skin after severe burns

Calgary firefighters and researchers at the University of Calgary share a passion and a vision: finding a way to significantly improve skin healing in people who have survived fires, one-third of them children.

Five years ago, the Calgary Firefighters Burn Treatment Society (CFBTS) donated $1 million to create the CFBTS Chair in Skin Regeneration and Wound Healing. Dr. Jeff Biernaskie, PhD, associate professor of stem cell biology at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, was named the inaugural chair.

Fast forward to 2019, and the society is pledging another $1 million in continued support of Biernaskie’s groundbreaking research into how dermal (skin) stem cells work. With a foundational understanding of what makes these cells tick, the next step is figuring out how to stimulate them to regenerate skin that’s been damaged by burns, injury, disease, or aging.

“One of the main reasons deep skin wounds don’t heal is because our bodies can’t regrow healthy dermis. Instead they form fibrous scar tissue,” says Biernaskie.

Celebrating the Calgary Firefighters Burn Treatment Society's $1 million renewal of its Chair in Skin Regeneration and Wound Healing, held by Jeff Biernaskie, are pictured above, from left: Tara Walmsley, Thomas Kerr, Dru Marshall,  Trevor Huggins, Duncan Nickerson, Baljit Singh, Vincent Gabriel, Jeff Biernaskie, Todd Nabozniak, and Rod Griffith

Evaluating drug cocktails to manipulate cells

“In our most recent work, we discovered that stem cells that reside in the dermis become activated following an injury and can actually initiate the formation of new hair follicles and healthy fat cells within a wound if provided with the right signals,” says Biernaskie. “Now we will start evaluating drug cocktails to purposefully manipulate cells within wounds to better promote regeneration and to limit the severity of scars.”

“It’s cutting-edge research for us and our survivors,” says Thomas Kerr, CFBTS treasurer. “The mental healing that a survivor goes through is way more than anybody ever knows. The physical aspect is secondary to the mental healing that goes on throughout their lifetimes. So, anything that can help them feel better about their scars and lessen the amount of surgeries and pain they have to go through is a win for us. It’s an absolute no-brainer for us to continue to support Dr. Biernaskie and his research.”

Biernaskie collaborates with a multidisciplinary team that includes Dr. Vincent Gabriel, MD, an assistant professor in the departments of Clinical Neurosciences in the Cumming School of Medicine and Dr. Duncan Nickerson, MD, a plastic surgeon and the medical director of the Calgary Firefighters Burn Treatment Centre at Foothills Medical Centre.

Jeff Biernaskie's groundbreaking dermal stem cell research is aimed at regrowing healthy new skin after severe burns.

Biernaskie's dermal stem cell research is aimed at regrowing healthy new skin after severe burns.

University of Calgary

Growing a patient’s own stem cells to transplant under a skin-grafted wound

Another avenue they are pursuing is to harvest dermal stem cells from a burn patient’s own dermis, multiply them in the laboratory, and then transplant them beneath a skin-grafted wound area, in order to better restore the skin’s normal function.

“Being able to improve regenerative function could limit the formation of scar and improve skin healing much better than skin grafts.”

Because skin graft treatments don’t repair the dermis — the deeper layers of skin that contain glands, hair follicles, nerves, and blood vessels — patients often suffer disfigurement, chronic pain, and itching. Grafts can also result in scars that pull the skin tight and stiff, making movement difficult or painful.

“The ultimate goal is to bring the most promising treatments into Phase 1 clinical trials at the Firefighters Burn Treatment Centre with Drs. Nickerson and Gabriel,” says Biernaskie.

Knowing there is a better day ahead

“Knowing there’s a better day ahead for them, that this isn’t it, there’s more to come is so important to patients,” says Kerr who, along with fellow firefighters, is in the highest risk group for serious burns.

“With the leaps and bounds that Dr. Biernaskie is making, it’s hard for us to think of not supporting him in any way that we can. We’re privileged to have been part of his research for the past five years and we’re super privileged to be part of it for the continuing years ahead.”

"I am truly honoured to have earned the Calgary Firefighters Burn Treatment Society's continued support," Biernaskie told the gathering at a recent event celebrating the chair renewal. "Our skin regeneration team will continue working to realize their vision to improve burn care and outcomes for survivors, and to make Calgary an internationally recognized centre for excellence in burn care and research."

Jeff Biernaskie is an associate professor in the Department of Comparative Biology and Experimental Medicine in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and the Calgary Firefighters Burn Treatment Society Chair in Skin Regeneration and Wound Healing. He has a joint appointment in the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) with the Department of Comparative Biology and Experimental Medicine and is a member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI) and the Hotchkiss Brain Institute.

Vincent Gabriel is an assistant professor in the departments of clinical neurosciences and surgery and a member of CSM’s McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health and ACHRI.

Duncan Nickerson is a plastic surgeon, a clinical associate professor in the Department of Surgery, and the medical director of the Calgary Firefighters Burn Treatment Centre at Foothills Medical Centre.

The Calgary Firefighters Burn Treatment Society contribution is part of the university’s ongoing fundraising campaign, Energize: The Campaign for Eyes High. The campaign is currently at $1.187 billion toward its overall goal of $1.3 billion.