Changing the face of burn victims
Severe facial burns can be devastating. Extreme heat produces immediate injury to airway mucosa, resulting in a number of complications. The delicate tissue is slow to heal, and skin grafts, the most common treatment, don’t always work. During the healing process, contracture can take place, leaving unsightly scars that inhibit standard facial functions.
“It’s terrible for burn victims, both physically and emotionally,” says Eileen Moss-Clements, a research scientist at the UT Arlington Research Institute.
She and her team, along with collaborators at the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research and Northwestern University, are working to ease the pain of badly burned soldiers. Their Biomask is a pliable, polymer mask embedded with electrical, mechanical, and biological components that can speed healing from disfiguring burns and help rebuild faces.
For burn victims, Army physicians typically use polyethylene foam on damaged tissue that applies a vacuum to promote healing. However, this method isn’t effective for facial burns.
“We couldn’t use it on the face because topographically the face is very complex,” says Col. Robert Hale, commander of the U.S. Army Dental and Trauma Research Detachment in San Antonio. “We couldn’t get a good seal.”
“This gives our wounded warriors hope. That's what it's all about. We're improving their quality of life.”
The pliable Biomask addresses this issue and then some. Dr. Moss-Clements believes it can help regrow tissue in place and improve the results of skin grafts. Embedded with arrays of sensing and treatment components, the mask enables localized monitoring and activation of treatment that can be applied to different parts of the wound. The sensors can provide feedback to physicians about the healing process and help them direct appropriate therapy to different tissues.
“We think the Biomask will become the ultimate tool for treating burns,” Moss-Clements says. “It’s a thinking device. As the wounds heal, the Biomask will be able to adjust treatment to provide faster and better results.”
Funded by a $700,000 grant from the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, the project is in the early development stages. The research team has started working on prototype fluid exchange systems and flexible patches. Some of the research is an early version of a Biomask system, and some will help collaborators investigate how to treat facial burns.
Nothing has been tested on burn victims yet, but researchers are optimistic. “This gives our wounded warriors hope,” Col. Hale says. “That’s what it’s all about. We’re improving their quality of life.”