Background. Cell therapy is an emerging therapeutic strategy aimed at replacing or repairing severely damaged tissues with cultured cells. Epidermal regeneration obtained with autologous cultured keratinocytes (cultured autografts) can be life-saying for patients suffering from massive full-thickness burns. However, the widespread use of cultured autografts has been hampered by poor clinical results that have been consistently reported by different burn units, even when cells were applied on properly prepared wound beds. This might arise from the depletion of epidermal stem cells (holoclones) in culture. Depletion of holoclones can occur because of (i) incorrect culture conditions, (ii) environmental damage of the exposed basal layer of cultured grafts, or (iii) use of new substrates or culture technologies not pretested for holoclone preservation. The aim of this study was to show that, if new keratinocyte culture technologies and/or 'delivery systems' are proposed, a careful evaluation of epidermal stem cell preservation is essential for the clinical performance of this life-saving technology. Methods. Fibrin was chosen as a potential substrate for keratinocyte cultivation. Stem cells were monitored by clonal analysis using the culture system originally described by Rheinwald and Green as a reference. Massive full-thickness burns were treated with the composite allodermis/cultured autograft technique. Results. We show that: (i) the relative percentage of holoclones, meroclones, and paraclones is maintained when keratinocytes are cultivated on fibrin, proving that fibrin does not induce clonal conversion and consequent loss of epidermal stem cells; (ii) the clonogenic ability, growth rate, and long-term proliferative potential are not affected by the new culture system; (iii) when fibrin-cultured autografts bearing stem cells are applied on massive full-thickness burns, the 'take' of keratinocytes is high, reproducible, and permanent; and (iv) fibrin allows a significant reduction of the cost of cultured autografts and eliminates problems related to their handling and transportation. Conclusion. Our data demonstrate that: (i) cultured autografts bearing stem cells can indeed rapidly and permanently cover a large body surface; and (ii) fibrin is a suitable substrate for keratinocyte cultivation and transplantation. These data lend strength to the concept that the success of cell therapy at a clinical level requires cultivation and transplantation of stem cells. We therefore suggest that the proposal of a culture system aimed at the replacement of any severely damaged self-renewing tissue should be preceded by a careful evaluation of its stem cell population.
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