Healing the wounds


THE DATE 8 January 2012 will be forever etched in Richard Richards’ memory. On that day, he was one of 40 firefighters who responded to a blaze at a bedsit in Wandsworth in south west London.

Crews were doing well to get the fire under control but, unbeknown to them, there was a bigger, more intense secondary fire burning. The unusual design of the building had concealed it from crews. When it unexpectedly exploded Richard was one of four firefighters injured.

“I recall being in there and it getting really hot, very quickly,” he says. “I remember myself burning one minute, and the next thing I remember, I was outside. The paramedics were on my left and my colleagues on the right. They kept telling me to stop speaking, to save my energy.”

Richard suffered burns to his arms, neck and shoulders and spent 19 days in hospital – a relatively short period of time for someone who has suffered burns to 20% of their body.

His family are all medical practitioners and the hospital was satisfied that they could change his dressings daily at home.

But he had to undergo at times very painful treatment for another 18 months, including four skin grafts. This involves taking healthy skin from other parts of the body and transplanting it onto the damaged skin. It is an effective treatment but it has severe drawbacks.

SKIN GRAFT

To create a graft, doctors in effect double the surface area of damaged skin on the body. In Richard’s case, surgeons needed to take 20% of healthy skin to transplant onto his burns.

Nearly half his body was affected – first by the initial injuries, then by the treatment.

There is also no guarantee that a skin graft will work in the long term, because the body can reject the new tissue. Patients are often prescribed immunosuppressive drugs to prevent rejection, but this, in turn, increases the likelihood of them developing cancer.

“The treatment can be just as painful as the initial injury,” says Richard.

But now there is hope for an alternative, more effective treatment to aid the recovery of people who have suffered burns.

Smart Matrix is a new treatment being developed by the Restoration of Appearance and Function Trust (RAFT). The charity hopes it will make skin grafts a thing of the past.

Smart Matrix is a thin layer of material composed of a naturally occurring protein called fibrin – normally formed by skin to help regenerate itself after it has been damaged. It acts as a kind of scaffold for the skin.

The Smart Matrix is placed on the wound and bombards the damaged tissue with blood vessels, providing skin cells with oxygen and nutrients. Over time the wounds close, and they heal and mature a lot faster. Smart Matrix could be a game changer for burns victims, says Dr Elena Garcia, director of research at RAFT.

“We are about to begin the second clinical trial of the Smart Matrix after a very promising start,” she says. “One day, in the not too distant future, we hope this technology will help firefighters who suffer life-changing burns.”

ALTERNATIVE TREATMENTS

RAFT’s efforts to find alternative treatments for burns victims have been aided by the Firefighters 100 Lottery, which donated £10,000 to the charity earlier this year. Its fundraising manager, Sarah Leven, told Firefighter that it will be able to help more people than ever. “We receive no government funding and are totally reliant on the generosity of our supporters,” she said. “The donation will help us develop our life-changing treatments faster.”

Founded in 1988 by four plastic surgeons who were frustrated at the lack of treatment available for burns victims, RAFT has been undertaking research and creating new treatments for decades.

If the charity had patented its technology for laser hair removal – which it developed to help amputees – there would be no need for them to fundraise today. Sadly, the charity lacked the expertise and commercial nous required to get this remarkable piece of technology properly accredited at the time. It would have generated millions of pounds of income each year.

Five years after suffering his injuries, Richard is a RAFT patron and continues to work in the fire service, although he cannot return to frontline fire­fighting duties.

The burns have damaged his sweat glands to such a degree that his body can no longer efficiently dissipate heat, which means he can overheat suddenly, without warning.

Perhaps RAFT, with its continuing advances in the field of skin regeneration, may one day be able to solve this problem as well.

To support the Firefighters 100 Lottery, go to www.firefighters100lottery.co.uk

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