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March 23, 2011

Medical Technology is Amazing

Burns can easily be some of the worst injuries a person can sustain. The most well-known type of burn is a thermal or heat burn, caused by touching something hot or by fire. Most people have had a first-degree burn; sunburns fall under this category. They are usually characterized by pain, redness, and some blistering. First-degree burns aren't particularly serious, and can usually be treated at home. Second-degree burns are also common, but are much more severe. When a person has a second-degree burn, the outer layer of skin has been burned away completely, and the dermis (the live skin underneath) is partially burnt. These burns are very prone to infection, as the outer layer of skin is the body's first defense against bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Without it, painful and serious infections are easy to get. There are also third-degree burns, in which both layers of skin are completely burnt away, and muscle can sometimes be burnt as well. Those are the worst type, and are much less common because of their severity. For now, though, I'd like to focus on second-degree burns.

In the past, treating second-degree burns was a long process, and infections were hard to avoid. To replace the lost outer skin, grafts have to be grown, either artificially or taken from another part of the patient's body. These grafts are very thin, a sheet only a cell thick. These grafts are easily damaged, are prone to infection, and take weeks to fully heal a burn. A new prototype technology, the skin gun, may make the healing process a lot less painful.

It's an amazing innovation, but a simple idea. Stem cells develop rapidly into all the necessary types of cells, and are ideal for this sort of application. National Geographic made a good video explaining how this works, and featuring a real patient who has had the procedure done. The results are spectacular. I've embedded the video below; however, take note that it does contain graphic images of second-degree burns, which are not for the faint of heart or stomach. Click to see the video below.