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The Warsaw Voice » Other » July 1, 2009
Biotechnology
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Flax Dressings
July 1, 2009   
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After 10 years of research, a team of scientists at the University of Wrocław Institute of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in southwestern Poland have obtained a genetically modified strain of flax with unusual properties. Fabrics made from this flax do not wrinkle or get wet, while plastics to which it is added decompose more quickly. The greatest hopes, though, concern the uses the flax could have in medicine-dressings made from it speed up treatment of hard-to-heal wounds.

Prof. Jan Szopa-Skórkowski, head of the research team, established a special foundation in May to promote the application of flax products in medicine. They will be manufactured by the Orzeł linen factory in Mysłakowice, Lower Silesia province.

The wound healer
"Genetically modified flax can be used to make new-generation dressings unknown in the world," Szopa-Skórkowski said after a series of tests at the Military Teaching Hospital in Wrocław.

Doctors from the hospital say these dressings may constitute a breakthrough in the treatment of chronic, hard-to-heal wounds. The tests lasted 12 weeks. Flax dressings were applied to hard-to-heal wounds in 35 patients on the dermatology ward. Those were most often ulcerations caused by venous insufficiency, diabetes and mechanical trauma. Effects in the form of substantial reduction or complete disappearance of the changes were visible within a few weeks, the doctors say. Many wounds that patients had had for several years-and in one case even 23 years-either shrank or healed completely.

How the research was done
The scientists took fibers from seed flax and introduced genes of fungi from the Aspergillus family and certain wild plants that grow in South America. The first stage of the research project involved introducing genes that prevent oxidation of the compounds produced by flax-fatty acids and proteins-which translated into improved vitality of cells. A plant strengthened in this way is not as easily destructible by negative environmental factors; it can prevent pathogenic infection and is resistant to variable climatic conditions. This means it can increase its productivity and is not vulnerable to infection by fungi and bacteria. The strengthened flax also started to produce large amounts of stable fatty acids and increased its production of seeds and fibers. Each of the elements-fibers and oil-contained antioxidants.

"After this stage of the research, the question was: If we can strengthen the plants, how can we use this to benefit humans," Szopa-Skórkowski says. "We thought of treating wounds, because every wound regardless of its type always involves cell destruction. An inflammation in cells, meanwhile, is the result of the production of free radicals, and these can be neutralized with the antioxidants we have introduced into the plants. Therefore, dressing a wound with fabric made from fibers containing antioxidants should slow down the reaction in which free radicals are formed-the process of destruction of the cells neighboring on the wound. This led us to the idea: First we dress the wound with fabric with the enriched fiber, halting the process of cell destruction. Then, using an emulsion of linseed oil, we strengthen the plasmatic membranes of cells that are still healthy."

The final stage of treatment involves increasing the reproduction ability of the healthy cells covering the wound. This is achieved by dressing the wound with an extract of oil cake. This means the innovative dressing has three components: fabric, oil emulsion and extract. The dressing designed to be widely available at pharmacies has been modified to be offered as a patch with all these functions.

The invention as a whole involves three patents (for the oil, the emulsion and the extract), four technologies (for making the fabric, the emulsion, the extract, and the oil) and the treatment method. Szopa-Skórkowski has received a grant from the Ministry of Science for further research.

Other uses
Flax dressings are not the only outcome of Szopa-Skórkowski's 10 years of research on the plant. Many forms of transgenic flax have been developed under his supervision at the Laboratory of Genetic Biochemistry of the University of Wrocław. One of the most promising ones is a strain of flax that helps protect the environment, part of a project called "Zero Waste From Flax." Adding it to widely used polymers such as polyethylene and polystyrene, which pollute the environment for hundreds of years, results in a completely biodegradable material that decomposes within just a few months.

Linseed oil cake, on the other hand, is used to make a biocomposite that can be used in the manufacture of control panels, bumpers, packaging, computer casings, household goods, bags and toys. Szopa-Skórkowski says this biocomposite could also work well in bone or joint implants, since it is just as durable as glass fibers but lighter, and also cheaper to make.

Szopa-Skórkowski is also working on genetically modified potatoes. Over the past 10 years, his team has produced 25 kinds of transgenic potatoes and flax as well as patenting 18 genes that are stored at the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the world gene bank located in Boston, Massachusetts, in the United States.

Ewa Dereń
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