Dr. Jeff Biernaskie

Calgary Firefighters Burn Treatment Society Chair in Skin Regeneration & Wound Healing, Assistant Professor, Comparative Biology & Experimental Medicine Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute
Researcher of the month: 
Apr 2016

Exploring the potential of dermal stem cells

What if you could use an easy-to-access stem cell to repair damaged brain neurons? Innervate skin grafts? Regrow hair? Restore peripheral nerve function?

Dr. Jeff Biernaskie, Assistant Professor of Comparative Biology & Experimental Medicine at the University of Calgary, believes that a dermal stem cell is the ideal candidate.

But first, he had to find one.

He and his research team are studying hair follicles as a model of tissue development and regeneration. That study has led to the world’s first discovery of a dermal stem cell that controls the regenerative process of hair growth.

“The hair follicle is one of the only systems in adult mammals that is capable of regenerating over and over throughout life without forming scar tissue,” Biernaskie explains. “We discovered a stem cell population that provides the molecular signals that instruct epithelial cells to rebuild the hair follicle.

“Without those signals, hair regrowth doesn’t happen. People may lose hair with alopecia or age-related hair loss, because of a dysfunction in the dermal stem cell that we discovered.”

To find the cell, Biernaskie and his team developed a technique called genetic fate mapping. They labelled potential stem cells with a fluorescent green protein, visible under a microscope. This protein permanently colours the cell and its progeny, e.g., all cells arising from cell division.

“Over several months, we traced where those daughter cells went. We found that they regrew all dermal cells within the hair follicle, including the dermal papilla. It generates cell signals that instruct epithelial cells to rebuild the hair follicle.”

The impact for skin grafts

Biernaskie’s curiosity about dermal stem cells is not limited to helping bald people regrow hair.

“You need hair follicles and glands to maintain the normal function of skin,” he explains. “My interest is in restoring normal function to a skin graft in someone who has suffered a burn or other skin injury.”

When Biernaskie came to Calgary, clinical colleagues Drs. Vincent Gabriel and Duncan Nickerson urged him to meet with patients from the Calgary Firefighters Burn Treatment Unit. “I really started to get an idea of how dermal stem cells might be useful for regenerating the dermal compartment of skin in burn wounds,” he says.

Most burns and large-surface wounds are treated with split-thickness grafts, shaved from the top layers of healthy skin in other body regions. These grafts lack the skin’s lower layer or dermis, which contains the hair follicles and glands that maintain normal skin function. Scar tissue binds the grafts to wounds and surrounding skin. As a result, split-thickness grafts are fragile, poorly innervated and highly dysfunctional.

“People with skin grafts have a huge number of problems,” says Biernaskie, who has become the Calgary Firefighters Burn Treatment Society Chair in Skin Regeneration and Wound Healing at. “Chronic pain, itching and immobility can last a lifetime.”

Dermal stem cells may play a role in restoring nerve function in skin, he explains, because they give rise to daughter cells that are a rich source of factors that stimulate nerve growth.

He hopes that doctors will eventually be able to transplant dermal stem cells from healthy skin to help restore normal function in split-thickness grafts.

Peripheral nerve function

In his laboratory, Biernaskie and his coworkers are studying how to use dermal stem cells to restore peripheral nerve function after injury. This work is closely related to his early training in neuroscience and neurobiology at The Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, where he first became curious about dermal stem cells.

He and his colleagues at SickKids found that the self-renewing cells could differentiate into Schwann cells, a type of glial cell that can repair or re-myelinate axons of peripheral nerve fibres.

“We want to understand why nerves don’t regenerate as well after injury, in older people, or in people with conditions like diabetes,” he says.

He has a personal interest in finding an answer. A few years ago, he severed a nerve in his leg during a skiing accident. Motor function was restored to the limb; however, he still suffers from sensory impairment.

Getting started

Biernaskie’s career began at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, where he took pioneer neuroscientist Bryan Kolb’s course in brain plasticity.

“I learned that, if you injure one area of the brain, another area has the capacity to take over its functions. That really resonated with me,” he says.

As an undergraduate, he volunteered at Kolb’s lab during the summer. There, he became interested in Kolb’s studies of neural stem cells, which focused on repairing brain function.

He then moved to Newfoundland, where he worked in Dale Corbett’s laboratory at Memorial University. He studied the impact of stroke on the brain and contributed to our understanding of when and how to use physical rehabilitation to aid stroke recovery.

Ideal model of stem cell biology?

Biernaskie believes that studying the hair follicle may help to unravel the mysteries of how stem cells work.

“Every organ in the body has a population of stem cells to maintain it. Most are dormant and only called to action when there’s an injury,” he says. “Understanding what might awaken those cells is crucial to figuring out how to repair and regenerate neural cells and other tissues after an injury.”

Ultimately, he hopes to find ways to manipulate the process of stem cell regeneration with drug therapies.

“I want to be able to translate this work into something that makes an impact on somebody’s life,” he explains.