Regenerative Medicine: Healing Wounds, Helping Patients

“More than six million people in the United States suffer from nonhealing wounds,” said William Ennis, DO, MBA, director of wound healing and tissue repair, Department of Surgery, “and this number does not include people with scar formation or burns.” Despite the number of people affected by nonhealing wounds, this topic continues to fly under the radar. Researchers at UIC are working to bring this area to national attention through their work at the Center for Wound Healing and Tissue Regeneration (CWHTR).

The CWHTR is a unique community of scientists, including immunologists, cell biologists, and bioengineers, as well as clinicians devoted to the study of injury, wound healing, and regeneration. The members of this multidisciplinary research center investigate the body’s reaction to injury, as well as mechanisms of repair and regeneration of tissues.

Luisa DiPietro, DDS, PhD, an immunologist and cell biologist who is a professor of periodontics, leads the center, which is housed in the College of Dentistry. Dr. DiPietro and her research group study wound healing in oral mucosal tissues, which protect the oral cavity. These tissues heal more quickly and with less scarring than skin and may provide clues to human regenerative capacity. “Looking at the process by which these tissues repair and regenerate could suggest ways to minimize scars from skin wounds,” said Dr. DiPietro.

The Center for Wound Healing and Tissue Regeneration (CWHTR) is a unique community of scientists, including immunologists, cell biologists, and bioengineers, as well as clinicians devoted to the study of injury, wound healing, and regeneration.

“Regenerative medicine is truly the evolution of wound healing. From a regenerative medicine standpoint, skin is the first area we can easily take from bench to bedside because we can see the target organ,” said Dr. Ennis.

He notes there is a unique opportunity here. “UIC is uniquely situated to lead this effort as both basic science and clinical expertise are readily available on campus. In addition, the medical campus serves over 1.6 million patients in its primary service area, most of whom are from populations that are underserved and, in addition, are disproportionately affected by nonhealing wounds.”

“When people think of nonhealing wounds, most think of traumatic wounds caused by war or gunshots. The general public does not have a strong understanding of what constitutes a nonhealing wound. In fact, most physicians don’t have a good understanding as well,” said Ennis. Many patients have been seen by up to eight physicians at two or more hospitals before they come to the center. “With wounds, we see patients waiting for a year with no improvement. What people don’t realize is that the wound could be a manifestation of an underlying disorder, like lupus or vasculitis.”

Dr. Ennis, recipient of the 2011 Georgetown Distinguished Achievement Award in Diabetic Limb Salvage, founded the nation’s first academic, physician-based fellowship in wound care at UIC and hosted the inaugural meeting of the American College of Wound Healing and Tissue Repair (ACWHTR) on campus last summer. ACWHTR was founded to fill a void in the medical education of physicians with regard to wound healing and tissue repair. The organization will also work to transfer the curriculum to multiple medical institutions throughout the country and to achieve formal board certification for physicians in the future.

At the inaugural meeting of the ACWHTR, one of Dr. Ennis’s patients, Charles Rakis, described his battle with a nonhealing wound. Paralyzed twelve years ago, Rakis has had a persistent wound for the last ten years. After seeing multiple physicians and enduring multiple surgeries, he was referred to Dr. Ennis. “I truly believe that I would be dead by now if it weren’t for Dr. Ennis,” he said.

Rakis had been considering a move to the East Coast to be close to major research universities, such as Yale and MIT, but realized he was getting the best possible care at UIC. He emphasizes the importance of training everyone from physicians to nurses to home health-care workers. “I still find that many health-care providers do not know how to care for my wounds the way that Dr. Ennis does.”

Dr. Ennis describes Rakis as a patient, advocate, and friend. “He’s not afraid to ask the tough questions, ones that we can’t always answer immediately, but with collaborations like this, will be able to answer in the future.”