"Spray-on skin" is game-changer for burn victims, heals major burns in two-thirds the time

CHERRY HILL, N.J. (WPVI) -- Burn care has seen a host of breakthroughs in the past decade.

Death rates have dropped by more than 50 percent since 1950.

The latest innovation is bringing patients closer to their old selves.

Last June, utility company lineman Todd Smith was on a crew replacing a downed pole in South Jersey.

"I remember getting there, but I do not remember what happened," Smith notes.

Somehow, he made contact with a live wire under his arm, just outside his safety gear, suffering third-degree burns all around his torso.

"My whole underarm, my lat (latissimus dorsi muscle) is gone. They took part of the muscle out there. And my whole ribcage that - there was a hole in there and that was exposed, and around to the center of my back was all burnt," Smith says.

Smith's left leg was also seriously burned, because the fire retardant clothing he had on actually kept the heat inside.

Dr. Lisa Rae, the medical director of Temple's Burn Center, says burns are painful and especially risky.

"There is some level of background pain, and then undergoing daily wound care is even more painful. And then certainly, you're at risk for infection (because of the lack of skin)," says Dr. Rae.

"The faster you heal, the less likely you are to get an infection," she adds.

Smith was burned so extensively, he didn't have a lot of healthy skin to graft.

So Dr. Rae used a combination: skin substitutes that form scaffolds to promote new growth, plus a technique called "spray-on skin."

A small bit of Smith's healthy skin was dissolved in enzymes, then sprayed over the wounds.

The spray contains all the cell components of skin, including those for color. The three types of cells help regenerate that outer layer faster, and with less scarring.

By spraying the donor site for the graft as well as the initial wound, Dr. Rae lessens pain and scarring for patients.

With spray-on skin, there's less scarring. However, Dr. Rae does use laser surgery to break up scarring, smoothing skin texture.

"We get people to heal in 10 days instead of a month," she says.

Todd is amazed at his progress.

"My leg was actually dark purple, black. And now it just looks like my regular color skin," he notes.

Over the past 11 months, Todd spent 46 days in the hospital, with several operations as an in-patient, then 4 outpatient procedures.

He has done so well, he has the OK for his annual fishing trip to Alaska, after missing last year.

"I get a lot more friends when I get back from Alaska than before because they all want fish," he says with a laugh.

The "spray-on skin" is so successful, the Temple Burn Center is using it for any patient with more than 10% of their body burned.

And the treatment is drawing patients from around the country, and inquiries for information from outside the U.S.
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