He used to work as a beer rep, but now he’s inventing synthetic skin to help burn victims and other people with serious wounds. And what’s just as surprising about Ryan Hartwell, a PhD candidate in experimental medicine at the University of British Columbia (under the supervision of Dr. Aziz Ghahary), is that he has turned to jellyfishes for this venture.
When he was an undergrad, Ryan’s girlfriend was in an accident and suffered a serious injury. During her treatment, he developed an interest in wound management and became involved in a business that made wound care devices. His interest in research took him back to university where he started looking into solving an age-old wound problem – creating patient-ready skin.
He says the idea was to make a synthetic, liquid-based skin for burns and chronic wounds that would minimize scarring. Currently, bovine (cow-based) material is being used for this, but Ryan believed that a better option could be found in jellyfishes, especially since there’s less risk of disease, these animals are abundant and they live in colder environments than humans, which would likely mean that the collagen could form a gel at a lower temperature than inside the human body. A lower temperature for gel formation is one advantage Ryan is trying to harness from the jellyfish in order to make liquid skin.
Surprisingly, the collagen found in the human body is exactly the same as the collagen found in jellyfish. Ryan says, “It’s neat that jellyfish are so similar to us.”
Ryan initially turned to the Vancouver Aquarium for jellyfish specimens he could use in his research, but he quickly realized he would need way more for the research he was doing. So, he did what any resourceful researcher would do in his situation: he headed to Chinatown to purchase dried specimens.
After a multi-step process, he was able to extract the jellyfish collagen, which was then mixed with other essential components to rapidly form a gel and create skin.
Ryan explains that the skin, once sprayed or injected, fills the nooks and crannies of the wound bed. He and his colleagues have been working with engineers specializing in nanofibre materials to make a mesh-like scaffold using fibres 1/1000 the diameter of human hair that can be used with the gel in deep wounds. Once sprayed on, this slurry forms a new layer of skin that has shown to minimize scarring. Their simple approach mimics what building engineers do to form a foundation using cement.
Ryan continues to experiment with other compounds in perfecting this synthetic skin at ICORD (International Collaboration on Repair Discoveries) in Vancouver, and says this type of research would not be possible without the support of CIHR, NSERC-Collaborative Health Research Program and the CIHR-SRTC Scholarship Program.
Learn more about jellyfishes during Jelly Invasion – on now at the Vancouver Aquarium.
Written by Karen Horak, writer-editor, content and digital experience at the Vancouver Aquarium.