The grant has been awarded to Professor Irene Leigh who is an internationally renowned expert in skin biology and disease. Professor Leigh is also Head of the College of Medicine, Dentistry and Nursing and a Vice-Principal of the University.
The `TreatSkin’ project will take advantage of state-of-the-art techniques including tissue engineering to focus on genetic targets connected to cancer and other genetic skin diseases.
“We have already identified genetic targets that are active in skin cancer and some other skin diseases – now we need to test whether these can be manipulated in order to stop these diseases occurring or repair the damage they cause,” said Professor Leigh.
“This is an important step in translating genetic research to pre-clinical testing, a key part of the whole process of drug discovery.”
The research team will use tissue engineering techniques to create human skin tissue in the laboratory. This is then grafted on to mice so that long-term testing can be carried out.
“This sort of research is extremely difficult to do on humans but also very hard to do on animals,” said Professor Leigh. “However, using the kind of tissue engineering that is very commonly used to create human skin tissue and which has already been used very successfully in areas like the treatment of burns victims, we have developed a technique that means we can do this effectively.
“You can’t just use the laboratory-grown skin tissue on its own for this research as it is only viable for around four to six weeks. So to be able to identify long-term effects – which we absolutely need to do – then you have to make use of animals and graft the skin on. This gives absolutely the best reconstruction of human skin that we can get.
“The long-term benefits of this could be extremely significant. These are common and very serious diseases we are looking at and the effect of finding new treatments for them could be huge.”
The University is committed to the 3 `R’s– the reduction, refinement and replacement of animals in biological and medical research.
The grant will fund the research for five years and will create a new lectureship and three further posts. “This funding expands the skills we have in my group here and provides long term backing for this work, which is essential in maintaining capacity to carry out tissue engineering, led by Dr Andrew South,” said Professor Leigh.
The work to be carried out under the terms of the ERC grant builds on previous work funded by the charity DEBRA (Dystrophic Epidermylosis Bullosa Research Association).
“This is an excellent example of work supported by a small charity being built up into a major research project,” said Professor Leigh.
“We have worked closely with DEBRA and will continue to do so, and we thank them for their continued support which has made a considerable impact in allowing us to carry out research.”