August 2021

A new British Skin Foundation-funded paper has recently been published describing a nanotechnology-based therapy to heal chronic wounds.

About Dr. Oliva

Dr Nuria Oliva

An organic chemist by training, Dr. Nuria Oliva specialised in biomaterials and nanotechnology for medical applications during her PhD at MIT (USA). In 2018, she joined the Almquist lab at Imperial College London as a postdoctoral fellow to work on nanotechnology-enabled therapies to promote healing of non-union fractures and chronic wounds. In September 2020, Nuria became an Imperial College Research Fellow in the Department of Bioengineering, where her group is studying novel nanotechnology and biomaterial approaches to tackle complex human diseases like chronic wounds, osteoarthritis, and cancer. Nuria was awarded the 2019 Young Investigator Award from the European Tissue Repair Society and was highly commended in the 2020 Aviva Women of the Future awards in the Science category.

Above image
Transfected HDF:
Microscopy image of skin cells after treatment with nanoparticles loaded with gene therapy. Green fluorescence emission indicates successful gene delivery to cells. Credit Dr Nuria Oliva and Jose Antonio Duran Mota.

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Microscopy image of skin cells in a 3D model of human skin. In red, the cells’ inner structure and in blue, the cells’ nuclei. Credit Dr Nuria Oliva and Jose Antonio Duran Mota.

Research into healing chronic wounds

In this study, we have developed a wound dressing loaded with nanoparticles to deliver gene therapy to fibroblasts, the main cells in the skin responsible for closing wounds. Many studies have showed that one of the reasons why chronic wounds do not heal is because the genes that drive wound closure in fibroblasts are faulty. We have taken a page from gene therapy and genetic engineering to repair defective genes in these cells and promote healthy healing. One limitation of this therapy is delivering the genes inside cells and avoiding their degradation in the blood stream. In collaboration with Prof. Salvador Borros in IQS (Barcelona), we have developed synthetic nanoparticles that can deliver high amounts of genetic material to fibroblasts. To overcome the limited stability of synthetic nanoparticles in the blood stream, we have combined them with gel-like wound dressings that protect them from degradation and deliver them over extended periods of times. As a proof-of-concept, PhD student Jose Antonio Duran-Mota used the nanoparticle-loaded wound dressing to deliver genes that make skin cells glow. The results demonstrate that this technology indeed makes cells glow, indicating successful gene delivery. Now, in collaboration with Dr. Ben Almquist from the Department of Bioengineering at Imperial College London and with support of a British Skin Foundation Small Grant Award, we are delivering therapeutic genes to promote growth of fibroblasts extracted from patients’ diabetic foot ulcers.

Impact of the research into chronic wounds

Chronic wounds are painful for the patient, leading to poor sleep, loss of mobility and social isolation. Current clinical approaches to chronic wound care consist of antibiotic dressings, mechanical debridement and offloading, and negative pressure therapy. When these treatments fail to work for wounds such as diabetic ulcers, many times, amputation becomes the fate for the patient. The NHS manages roughly 1 million chronic wounds per year in the UK, with a conservatively estimated management cost of £3 billion. It becomes clear that new approaches to treat chronic wounds is an unmet clinical need with high economic and societal impact, especially in our ageing society.

What’s next for chronic wound research?

In parallel to our current studies delivering therapeutic genes, we are also exploring the translational path-to-market plan through the Techcelerate programme at Imperial. We are looking to engage expert clinicians and stakeholders at this early stage to join us in this journey to heal chronic wounds. We are also seeking additional funding to conduct a pre-clinical study to assess safety and efficacy of the technology.

Dr Nuria Oliva
Imperial College Research Fellow

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