Several years ago, Jamie and Glen Selby, two young boys from Wyoming, were playing with paint. They dabbed each other with streaks of color, and then used paint thinner to wash the marks off. Then a very bad thing happened: Someone lit a match. The paint thinner caught fire, and the brothers were very seriously burned over most of their bodies.
Doctors rushed the Selbys from Wyoming to a hospital in Boston. There, they were given a brand new kind of burn treatment with a technique developed by Dr. Howard Green of Harvard Medical School. Using the technique, doctors could cover the Selbys' burns with new skin grown in a test tube.
How did the doctors grow skin? First, they removed postage-stamp- size pieces of healthy skin from each boy's arm. Then, following a recipe developed by Dr. Green, they put the skin in a test tube and mixed it with a variety of substances to stimulate, or encourage, growth.
In about 20 days, the bits of test-tube skin grew to the size of playing cards. The doctors took the pieces out of the test tubes, and carefully placed them over the boys' burns.
Soon, the new skin patches began to grow. They spread out over the boys' injuries, creating a protective covering. The new skin does the same job as the skin the Selby boys lost when they were burned -- it keeps infection out of the body, and holds important liquids in.
You probably don't spend much time thinking about the job your skin does for you every day. But without it, you would be in constant danger from infections. You'd also get dehydrated, or dried out, without the protection of your skin. When a person gets badly burned, the skin can no longer do its vital jobs. So the first thing doctors must do is provide some protection for the burned body.
In most cases, the most effective treatment is grafting. That means taking skin from a healthy part of the body, and placing it over the burn. Sometimes temporary grafts made from pig skin can be used.
But when people are as badly injured as the Selby brothers were, this procedure isn't possible. There simply isn't enough healthy skin left. Luckily for the boys, Dr. Green's method for growing skin gave them a second chance at life. They still face more surgery, but both boys are back home and back in school. "They're doing very well," says a spokesman for Dr. Green.
Experts believe that test-tube skin could save as many as 15,000 badly burned people every year. So far, 15 people have been helped by the new method. The new skin isn't perfect; it contains no sweat glands, and no hair. But it provides protection, and looks much more natural than the bad scars that burns can leave behind. As a treatment, it is still considered experimental. But it offers great hope for the future.
Another important kind of burn treatment is an artificial skin developed by Dr. Ioannis V. Yannas, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Dr. John F. Burke, of Massachusetts General Hospital. The artificial skin is made from a mixture of many things, including substances found in cowhide and shark cartilage. Artificial skin has helped save about 50 burn victims since it was first used in the late 1970s.
Burns are a very serious health problem. Every year, some 200,000 Americans end up in the hospital because of burns. Some of these people die. Burns are one of the leading causes of accidental death in this country. So finding effective treatment for these injuries is one of the most important jobs doctors are doing today.
Of course, the very best treatment for burns is prevention. Red the tips below to find out what you and your family can do to play it safe at home. Tips for Parents
Learn Not to Burn -- that's the motto of the National Fire Protection Association. Every home should have smoke detectors; every family should have a fire evacuation plan which is rehearsed regularly. In addition, the association recommends the following to help prevent home fires:
*Never smoke in bed. Carelessness with cigarettes, cigars, and pipes is the single largest cause of home fires.
*Check your home's electrical wiring system. Faulty wiring is the second leading cause of home fires.
*Check your lighting equipment. Check electrical cords for cracks, poor connections, and broken plugs. Make sure lamp shades don't touch bulbs.
*Be careful with heating appliances. If you have a wood or coal stove, have the fire department check it to see that it is safely installed. Have your heating system professionally inspected once a year.
*Be careful when cooking. Keep pot handles turned in from the stove's edge. Don't leave food unattended. In case of a grease fire, use an extinguisher, not water.
*Do not allow children to play with matches or flammable liquids. Store matches and lighters out of the reach of young children. Teach older children how to use matches responsibly.
For more information, contact your local fire department, or write to the NFPA at 470 Atlantic Ave., Boston, Mass., 02210.