An experimental skin spray has given a US woman back her skin after drug-resistant bacteria devoured most of the flesh on her left side.
In January, Christin Lipinski, 37, developed flu-like symptoms and pain under her armpit. Doctors at Maricopa Integrated Health System – a hospital in Phoenix, Arizona – found she was infected with a vicious, flesh-eating strain of Streptococcus bacteria.
“When we took her to the operating room we realised it was worse than we thought,” says her treating doctor Kevin Foster. The bacteria had spread from her armpit down most of her left torso and arm.
To prevent further spread, Foster’s team cut away the infected tissue. “It was so deep we basically went down to muscle,” he says.
Normally, large skin wounds are patched up using skin grafts from another part of the body. But because Lipinski had already lost a third of her skin, she couldn’t afford to lose any more.
Running out of options, Foster decided to appeal to the FDA for compassionate use of an experimental skin spray called ReCell. The spray is currently being trialled as a treatment for severe burn wounds.
To make the spray, doctors take a small patch of skin from another part of the patient’s body. A special enzyme is used to break the tissue into individual skin cells, which are then sprayed in a fine mist over the wound.
Once they settle, the individual skin cells divide and spread until they join up to cover the wound. “Normally, a wound heals from the edges, which takes time, but this allows it to heal everywhere at once,” says Michael Perry at Avita Medical, the biotech company developing the treatment.
Foster’s team began treating Lipinski with ReCell on 23 February after getting FDA approval. They used it in combination with a meshed autograft – a piece of skin they took from her thigh and pierced with small holes to make it stretch over a larger area.
When they took the dressings off a week later, they were shocked to find the wound had already 95 per cent healed. The skin is still a bit red and bumpy, but Foster believes it will settle down over the next few weeks.
The results are far better than would be expected for a meshed autograft alone, says Foster. “We think the skin spray made a real difference,” he says.
It’s still unclear how the otherwise healthy mum of three contracted the infection. “It was probably just bad luck,” says Foster. There’s evidence that some people’s genes make them more vulnerable to attack by Streptococcus bacteria, but we don’t know for sure.
About 600 to 1200 people in the US are affected by flesh-eating disease – also known as necrotising fasciitis – each year, and a quarter do not survive.
Lipinski is expected to be discharged from hospital in the next couple of weeks.
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