Skin is the subject of a major project called SKINTEGRITY, involving a collaboration between ETH Zurich, the University of Zurich and university hospitals. Co-leader, cell biologist Sabine Werner is working with engineers to investigate the molecular mechanisms of wound healing and its parallels with the development of cancer.

ETH Professor Sabine Werner leads the flagship project SKINTEGRITY. (Photos: Kellenberger Kaminski Photographie)

"I have been at ETH Zurich for eighteen years and I have enjoyed being here since day one," explains Sabine Werner. "However, SKINTEGRITY has given my research a further, strong boost." The ETH Professor leads the flagship project being undertaken by the "University Medicine Zurich" network in which twenty-six research groups are exploring the causes of skin diseases and disruption to the healing of wounds and are developing new diagnostic procedures and therapies. Her co-leader is Lars French, Professor and Director of the Dermatological Clinic of Zurich University Hospital.

The research network is a bottom-up initiative, started off by Sabine Werner and her colleague Edoardo Mazza, Professor of Mechanics at ETH Zurich, with the oversight and substantial support of the Vice-President of ETH Zurich, Detlef Günther. The founder explained that you could sense the great enthusiasm and shared chemistry between the people involved right from the very first workshop. Many of the researchers had never worked together before. Sabine Werner added that "I had not realised how much interest and, more especially, how much expertise there was in the skin sector in Zurich".

Prof. Dr Sabine Werner (Photo: Kellenberger Kaminski Photographie)

Since SKINTEGRITY launched in October 2016, many interdisciplinary projects have been undertaken which would otherwise not have come about. For example, researchers who developed artificially grown skin for transplant at Zurich Children's Hospital in previous years are collaborating with engineers at ETH to build a machine which automatically produces replacement skin. The involvement of the Faculty of Engineering of ETH Zurich in SKINTEGRITY makes the network project unique. "That is our strength and it is innovative," explains Sabine Werner.

Promoting the healing of wounds

In a SKINTEGRITY sub-project, the cell biologist has been working with engineer Edoardo Mazza to investigate how mechanical forces influence the healing of wounds. Observations on patients have shown that wounds heal less effectively when they are exposed to mechanical stress. At the same time, certain mechanical forces would appear to be necessary to maintain the healing of wounds. With their mechanical and cell-biological characterisations, the researchers are seeking to identify which forces promote the healing of wounds and hope to be able to apply their findings in therapeutic practice in future.

Sabine Werner's area of specialisation is the process of tissue regeneration. Her research group identified a series of growth factors which are released following a skin injury. The team was able to demonstrate how these factors affect each other, coordinating the cells during the wound healing process. There are parallels with the development of cancer. "Cancer utilises the mechanisms of wound healing to advance its own growth," explains the expert. Liaising with researchers from Zurich University Hospital, she is investigating the similarities or differences between individual cell types in wound healing and in the development of cancer. Her research is conducted using tissue samples from a bio bank which is being set up as part of SKINTEGRITY. As the ETH Professor explains, "this is material which we would otherwise never have had access to", stressing the fact that this is only done with the consent of patients, of course, and has been approved by the Ethics Committees.

SKINTEGRITY has received start-up financing contributions of half a million francs each from ETH Zurich (including the ETH Zurich Foundation) and from the University of Zurich. Some of the research network's projects are now also receiving support from a variety of foundations. The skin research being carried out in Zurich has also come to the attention of industry. For example, an initial collaboration has been started with a biotech firm. Other interest has been shown by companies at home and even in the United States. Sabine Werner is particularly delighted to have received applications from doctoral candidates and postdocs from all over the world who wish to be involved in SKINTEGRITY. By bringing together biology, engineering and hospitals, young researchers can receive training at the crossover points between those disciplines. "They are our scientific researchers of tomorrow," explains Sabine Werner.