Natalie Akoorie is a reporter at the NZ Herald based in Hamilton.

Red Nose Day funds offer skin-graft hope for burnt boy

Allissa McDowall with  her son Jack Dragicevich, 8, who was badly burned aged 2. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Allissa McDowall with her son Jack Dragicevich, 8, who was badly burned aged 2. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Jack Dragicevich was almost 3 when he pulled a bowl of boiling water over himself, scalding his chest so badly he needs skin grafts every two years.

Now almost 9, the Auckland schoolboy has endured 11 operations but because of an allergy he rejects adhesive used to apply the skin grafts taken from his back. And the treatment is ongoing.

So when his mother, Allissa McDowall, heard about research at the University of Auckland to engineer full-thickness skin for burns patients, she was delighted.

"It will save his back. He has to lie on his back where they take the skin off for the skin grafts so hopefully if it doesn't reject like his own skin, it will stretch with him as he grows."

The research is using funding from Cure Kids, which has its biggest annual appeal today, Red Nose Day.

The appeal helps fund research into cures and better treatments for conditions affecting children such as cot death, stillbirth, leukaemia, rheumatic heart disease, respiratory conditions, genetic malformations, cystic fibrosis, inherited heart conditions, pre-term and very low birth-weight babies and many more.

The appeal also allows Cure Kids to continue supporting New Zealand's best and brightest child health researchers through the three professorial chairs, a competitive granting round, and through partnership opportunities addressing specific child health issues.

Professor Rod Dunbar, who is leading the research for burns patients, believes his team's groundbreaking discovery will one day revolutionise burns treatment. The skin is not yet ready for use.

"The ultimate goal is to have the patient's own skin over that burn injury.

"But that involves skin grafting and for a very large burn there's simply not enough skin to graft from and so they can spend many months in the burns unit waiting for skin to grow," he said.

After scientists realised skin could be engineered in a laboratory almost two decades ago, the challenge became growing full-thickness skin.

Dr Andrew Wood who is involved with cancer research for Red Nose Day. Photo / Dean Purcell

"The problem has been that the skin is only one cell thick usually," Professor Dunbar said. "It's difficult to work with and very expensive to generate, and when you use these thin sheets the skin is often fragile and prone to injury."

He is using funding from Cure Kids to develop skin made from both layers - the epidermis or outer layer and the dermis or deeper layer.

The intensive work normally involves taking a tiny piece of skin and growing the cells in dishes.

"We've developed a new system which allows us to grow both layers and in an easier way than what has been possible," he said.

A dissolving membrane is used so both layers of skin grow on either side to create a "sandwich".

A series of exciting discoveries which Professor Dunbar cannot divulge means the growing process is much quicker and more affordable.

Clinical trials will follow, in collaboration with the National Burn Centre, with the aim of reducing the amount of skin grafts a serious burns victim needs.

Shelton Woolright. Photo / Carmen Bird

Meanwhile, a date with I Am Giant drummer Shelton Woolright is being auctioned off as part of Red Nose Day.

The tattooed Kiwi rock star is available for two hours to the highest bidder in an effort to raise money for the charity which funds research into a wide range of serious child health conditions.

The Trade Me auction is for up to two people to spend two hours with Woolright when he returns from the band's European tour in January.

Last night bids were at $585.

Red Nose Day
• 550 schools fundraising for Red Nose Day this year
• $1.7 million paid to existing research grants in 2013
• $1.8 million of new grants approved last year
• 102 researchers supported through grants in 2013
• $36 million invested in child health research to date

To donate
Text NOSE to 933 for $3, get a red nose from a participating retailer, or visit

- NZ Herald

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