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Saturday, 25 November, 2000, 00:21 GMT
Pioneering treatment for burns girl
theatre general
The procedure is quicker than standard grafting
A pioneering cell transplant technique has been used to give a new appearance to a 12-year-old Birmingham girl, badly burned when she was a baby.

Becky Owen was two when she received severe burns to her face and head when a pan of hot fat fell from the cooker.

Although skin grafts taken from her leg were very successful, they left some parts of her face darker than others.

But, by taking some skin from behind Becky's ear and using it to grow more cells, a special spray was created to replace the dark pigment.

Dr Debra Balderson, clinical scientist at Birmingham's Selly Oak Hospital said the revolutionary procedure had been very successful.

"Though the original graft had been successful there was a mismatch in colour - the skin on your legs will keep a tan longer than the skin on your face."

It has huge potential for treating burns, reducing time in hospital, preventing infection and improving survival

Dr Debra Balderson, Selly Oak Hospital
This resulted in dark patches across Becky's forehead and down one cheek.

The technique used in Selly Oak involved a small biopsy just one centimetre square being taken from behind Becky's ear where the skin is much less pigmented.

The harvested cells were then cultured in the lab and a week later millions of the new cells suspended in a special fluid.

Cells sprayed on

A very thin layer of grafted skin on Becky's face was removed using a technique known as dermabrasion and the new skin cells sprayed on.

The procedure took place nearly four weeks ago and Becky is now back at school, with her face fully healed.

However, she will need to be careful to avoid any bumps or scrapes for up to a year because of the delicate nature of the cells.

Dr Balderson said: "Becky was at an age where her appearance was becoming an issue but we're very happy with how things have worked out and so is she."

The procedure is similar to burns treatment where thin sheets of cells are grown in the lab and then grafted on.

But the sheets are very fragile and less easy to manage than the 20ml syringe the Birmingham doctors used.

Dr Balderson's colleague, plastic surgeon, Remo Papin, had seen the spray technique while in Australia, where it has been in use for several years.

"We used it to help Becky's appearance but it has huge potential for treating burns, reducing time in hospital, preventing infection and improving survival," Dr Balderson explained.

The technique requires just a small, thin layer of cells to be taken from the patient and it could be particularly useful in people who have had more than 50% burns and in babies and young children, where taking large grafts from other parts of the body is difficult.

The work of the Birmingham lab has so far been supported by charity and Dr Balderson says: "the people of Birmingham have been wonderful".

She is hopeful that more patients can be treated and that they can expand their research so they can convince the NHS to start funding their work.

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