SALT LAKE CITY — Desperate for ways to both keep her son alive and preserve his quality of life after burns had severely injured 55 percent of the skin on his body late last year, Julie Nelson was willing to try anything.
After Nelson's son, 19-year-old Austin Weaver, started running out of options for skin grafts and amputation of his arms grew increasingly likely, the surgeon overseeing the case approached the family to explain "we're just kind of thinking out of the box at this point," Nelson recalls. The surgeon told her about SkinTE.
Nelson was told it was a brand new treatment that used a paste-like substance created from a patient's skin, which had the ability to grow after being placed on a wound and develop the same functions as normal skin.
"I at that point was looking at the experimental things, saying — OK, well, is there going to be hope?" the Saratoga Springs woman said. "It was a pretty sound concept. It was almost too good to believe it was an option."
Several months after Weaver started using SkinTE, the results have not been perfect, but "we have watched it save (his) life," she says.
"I would say the SkinTE gave him hope where there was absolutely none left waiting for him."
In the aftermath of his injuries, hope was in great demand for Weaver, who suffered his burns as a result of a suicidal episode last November. The ordeal left him and his family knowing his physical recuperation at the University of Utah Burn Unit was just one of the mountains he had to climb.
"It has been a struggle emotionally, but I am optimistic about my recovery because all of my wounds now look like they are healing nicely," Weaver told the Deseret News.
Weaver suffered third-degree burns from his neck down to high on his thighs on the front of his body, and from his hairline to his knees in the back.
The last eight months of demanding and painful physical therapy, numerous surgeries and staying full time at the burn center have comprised of "good days and bad days," Weaver says, putting it mildly, but things are looking up.
"The last few weeks have been more good days than bad, so I have hope that my body is recovering," he said.
A recovery at all is miraculous in itself, his mother said. Without the new treatment, she firmly believes "he more than likely would have lost his life."
"Just the idea of the SkinTE being a viable option was enough to raise his spirits enough to where he was able to keep fighting," Nelson said.
PolarityTE, the Salt Lake City biotech company that created SkinTE, announced in October of last year that it had begun a limited rollout of the product to facilities around the country, and the very first patients were using it beginning in December.
Since then, about 50 patients have used SkinTE, with encouraging results, said Dr. Ned Swanson, chief operating officer of PolarityTE.
"We're pretty excited with what we've seen so far," Swanson told the Deseret News. "I think that's going to help drive more adoption (of it), with all of these first users discussing what they're seeing so far."
Swanson said the company develops SkinTE by using a small "full thickness piece" of the patient's healthy skin and processing it into a gel-like product that is later administered onto the patient's burn wound via a syringe.
Because the product can "act like the tissues that you're trying to replace," Swanson said, it can "essentially regenerate on the patient" at a fast pace.
"It works better when you let it happen right on the patient," he said.
There are significant limitations to each of the two predominant types of skin grafts that are currently used, which is why SkinTE represents a promising breakthrough, Swanson said.
The first, a split layer graft, doesn't use the full skin, and so can be safely removed from the same donor site on a patient's body multiple times, he said. But because those kinds of grafts don't function as a full layer of skin, "all they're really capable of doing is creating (a) barrier across the wound."
A split layer graft "is critical to get the patients essentially out of that really intensive period of their burn," but they "contract and scar over time and start to limit the range of motion" on joints, Swanson said.
He said a full thickness graft, on the other hand, retains some skin functionality, "but you can't really expand it and you can't really take big pieces," and has larger consequences for the donor site on the patient's body where it was taken from.
"Those are largely reserved for (treating) much smaller burns or wounds where full thickness is really critical," such as on a person's face, Swanson said.
Unlike a full thickness graft, the SkinTE paste can grow many times its original size after being put on the patient, in addition to functioning in many ways as normal skin, according to Swanson.
"There are patients who have regenerated hair. They have sensation, they have sweat glands that are functioning," he said.
Thanks to their initial success, PolarityTE will expand its labs in the next several months to ensure there is access for patients in every part of the country, Swanson said. Much of their initial concern was over making sure they were capable of creating the SkinTE for patients promptly when requests came in, he said.
The SkinTE product worked wonders on some of Weaver's torso and also one of his thighs, his mother said.
"His sides are just absolutely amazing," Nelson said.
Because viable donor sites were scarring, those areas "would not have gotten covered had it not been for the SkinTE," she said. More than that, those same salvaged parts of his skin can help the healing process in other parts of his body some day, she said.
"Eventually, the areas that are SkinTE will be able to heal to the point where they (can be) donor sites," Nelson said.
Still, it's not all good news for Weaver. At one point, his arms were "the farthest along" in their recovery due to the SkinTE, Nelson said, but parts of them are back to square one after an infection called Pseudomonas — not an unfamiliar ailment for some burn patients — damaged his skin there.
Four hours of physical therapy every single day also remain grueling.
"He has his ups and downs like anyone would," Nelson said. "He has the days where he struggles (and) he has the days where he's feeling great about it."
Progress in the recovery is always uncertain. It's possible Weaver could leave the hospital as soon as next month, though it would not be surprising if it took until December, Nelson said.
For now, the task at hand for Weaver is to stay patient as he anticipates the day when he can re-establish a sense of normalcy — taking a nice shower and spending time with friends are two things he's most looking forward to — and take his life back in more ways than one.
"I have been asking myself what I am going to do with my life since the night I got burned, but I don't know the answer yet," he said. "I have just been focusing on recovering so I can have a future."
Anyone wishing to donate toward a fund paying for Weaver's medical costs and follow his recovery can visit www.gofundme.com/recoveryofausome.