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Cleopatra bathed in it, now it heals skin

Dr Tim RaynerDoctor Timothy Rayner

9 July 2009

When Cleopatra bathed in milk, could she have been onto something? Yes, it turns out milk really does have a lot to do with healing skin, particularly in burns patients.

Investigating the skin repair activity and wound healing potential of a particular milk extract, Dr Timothy Rayner and his team discovered that it stimulated skin cells to produce collagen. They went looking for the responsible agent and found a protein molecule that not only promotes collagen production, but also has the potential to increase the speed with which new tissue is formed.

Here Dr Rayner talks to Dr Andi Horvath about Cleopatra and explains that, while the newfound molecule is the subject of a number of patent applications, the research continues.

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Transcript of podcast

Voice-over: Welcome to this special National Health & Medical Research Council podcast on Ten Of The Best Research Projects for 2008. Our podcasts aim to keep you in touch with major health and medical research issues and the people who shape them.

Introduction:  Hi I’m Dr Andi Horvath and I have the pleasure of interviewing Dr Timothy Rayner. He was a Chief Investigator of an NH&MRC project.

Interviewer: Dr Timothy thanks for joining us on this NH&MRC podcast.

Dr Rayner: No problem Andi.

Interviewer: Now explain to us your area of research. What is it that you do?

Dr Rayner: My area of research is skin biology and principally looking at factors that can stimulate skin cells to produce the protein called collagen. Collagen’s the primary protein found in skin that gives strength to skin and it’s also found in bone.

Interviewer: Okay, take us back in time. What was the premise of your investigation? We know a little bit about collagen, the biology of collagen, but what didn’t we know, so therefore what did you want to explore?

Dr Rayner: What we were doing back in the early 90s was working on a growth factor extract from milk and this extract contained growth factors, which are molecules that stimulate cells to grow, and we were investigating the skin repair activity and wound healing potential of this particular extract. We discovered that it stimulated the production of collagen by the skin cells, primarily fibroblast, but we didn’t know the actual protein that was responsible for this particular activity within that mixture, so we went looking for the agent responsible for that stimulatory activity.

Interviewer: Right. I have to ask, so I should perhaps take some baths in milk to improve my skin condition?

Dr Rayner: Ha, well that’s what they thought Cleopatra used to do.

Interviewer: Ha, ha, fair enough. So what was the outcome of this research project, what did you find? Did you find the molecule in milk that does the good stuff?

Dr Rayner: Ah, yes we did and what this turned out to be was a known molecule but what we discovered was a new function for this particular molecule.

Interviewer: Introduce us to the molecule. What’s it called?

Dr Rayner: Probably best not to disclose that at this time as it’s still the subject of a number of patent applications.

Interviewer: Ooh, how exciting! So we’ll just refer to it as the milk protein then.

Dr Rayner: That’s correct and so two patent applications have been filed — complete patent applications have been filed — for this particular molecule and a couple of other provisionals have also been lodged.

Interviewer: Okay so this milk protein has been patented. Draw a line between the importance of patenting a product, why it’s important for skin and how it helps in wound healing.

Dr Rayner: So just to cover most of the bases here. What we found with this particular molecule was that not only did it promote the production of collagen, the main protein produced by skin cells such as fibroblast, but it also promoted the migrational movement of these particular cells into an artificial scaffold. And so what that means is that this particular protein had the potential then to create new tissue by inducing the cells when it’s placed onto the skin in a scaffold.

Interviewer: Wow we can create new skin!

Dr Rayner: Well potentially to help the healing process by promoting the cells to move into this scaffold… there are a couple of those on the market at the moment used primarily in patients with burns or in reconstructive surgery.

Interviewer: Oh I see so it has applications in not just wound healing in injury but also for reconstructive surgery where there’s lots of scarring?

Dr Rayner: Yeah potentially, so really what we were thinking is that this particular molecule could speed up that process and so I’ll just repeat that there are a number of products on the market at the moment that can achieve those sorts of outcomes, that they act as artificial scaffolds, but this particular protein, if you add it into those scaffolds could potentially increase the speed with which that new tissue is formed.

Interviewer: Ah, so this is like an accelerant to wound healing and injury care?

Dr Rayner: Possibly. I mean that was our thinking. Just remember that this is pretty early stage research and so we actually haven’t been able to prove that aspect of the theory to date.

Interviewer: If you could sum up why you do this research in one or two sentences what would you say?

Dr Rayner: Well it’s really the opportunity to take a fundamental discovery and generate a product or treatment with relevant health benefits, I mean that’s the ultimate goal of all research really is to produce a product that can help treat a patient or change practice.

Interviewer: Dr Tim how did you start off life? What was your area of expertise and what knowledge did you gather along the way for this milk protein project?

Dr Rayner: I’m a human physiologist and I actually started life investigating a hormone that was released from the heart and acts as a diuretic and a couple of other changes in field then led me to working on the skin and developing expertise in skin physiology, but basically my expertise is understanding human systems and how they interact and work together and so that when we come up with a finding such as this I can place it into the right context and identify ways in which we can best use it.

Interviewer: As a Chief Investigator what sort of skills did you need to recruit to this project? So introduce us to the other team members.

Dr Rayner: The fundamental studies that we had to undertake required a fair bit of cell biology expertise and so I had not worked with cells before and so a number of the team, Mark Denichilo and Romana Borowicz, were cell biologists. They could come in and help with the studies to examine the fundamental events occuring in the cells, in the culture dish. We needed clinical support from clinicians that understood some of the areas that we were looking at and so we obtained that from the Burns Unit at the Royal Adelaide Hospital and also for conducting other experiments, pre-clinical experiments, to get proof of concept in an animal model and we also needed assistance from people like the IMVS (Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science) Division of Veterinary Sciences here in Adelaide.

Interviewer: Dr Timothy, some final reflections on being a Chief Investigator. Will you do it all again and if you are going to, why?

Dr Rayner: Really it’s the thrill of the chase and the capacity to really, at some stage, contribute to a piece of the puzzle that may ultimately help somebody else come up with a new treatment or to promote general health overall.

Interviewer:  Well good luck with the thrill of the chase. Dr Timothy Rayner a Chief Investigator of an NH&MRC project, thank you.

Dr Rayner: No problem.

Voice-over: This podcast was brought to you by the National Health and Medical Research Council, working to build a healthy Australia. You'll find more information about this and other health and medical research issues on our website at www.nhmrc.gov.au.