UCSD Biologists Uncover Key Genes in Healing Processes


Details of their discovery were published this week in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS. While their discovery was made in the laboratory fruit fly Drosophila, the team of researchers emphasized the genes that regulate biological processes in the hard exoskeleton — or cuticle — of Drosophila also control similar processes in human skin. 

Researchers included Rachel Patterson, PLOS paper author; William McGinnis, professor of biology and interim dean of the Division of Biological Sciences; and Michelle Juarez, former postdoctoral fellow in McGinnis’s lab and present assistant medical professor at the City College of New York. The team punctured the cuticle and epidermis of Drosophila embryos, examining 84 genes that were turned on, 78 genes that were off and identified eight specific genes that were only activated near the puncture wounds.

“Many of the key molecules and proteins involved in Drosophila wound healing are involved in mammalian wound healing,” Patterson said in a press release. “The genetics of Drosophila are not as complicated as mammalian genetics, so it’s easier to attribute specific biological functions to individual genes.”

After puncturing the exoskeletons of the fruit flies, researchers used the enzyme trypsin to activate specific genes involved in wound healing. They were surprised to discover that an immune response was almost immediate as antimicrobial peptides and other compounds were released to prevent bacterial and fungal infections of the wounds. 

The next step is to determine the importance of these genes in humans. If the hypothesis of the researchers is correct, the genes  could be used in new wound-healing drugs or other skin ailment treatments.

“I think one amazing application of our studies may be to build a better bandage — containing compounds to promote wound healing,” Juarez said in a press release.

According to Patterson, the results of the lab could be incorporated into existing human therapies by using the antimicrobial peptides that are released as an immune response. Other applications could include treating more serious chronic skin diseases such as psoriasis, a skin condition that causes skin redness and irritation, as well as severe dry skin and eczema. These skin ailments are known to have abnormal levels of enzyme trypsin.