Associate Professor of Practice Department of Biological Sciences
Professor ‑ Department of Biological Sciences
Helping Diabetics Heal
Roughly one in six Native American adults has diabetes, a higher percentage than any other racial group in the United States.
Many Native Americans also live on land where the water is contaminated with arsenic, which can prevent chronic diabetic wounds from healing.
For people with diabetes, a small cut or wound on the foot can be a big problem. If left untreated, these injuries can quickly escalate into a serious infection or even amputation.
It’s a health care crisis that NAU researchers Robert Kellar and Catherine Propper are tackling head on.
A breakthrough in the lab
Kellar is an expert in wound healing, while Propper studies how environmental contaminants affect the human body. The two are teaming up to study how arsenic-contaminated water keeps diabetic wounds from healing. More important, they hope to develop a treatment that can reverse the effects of arsenic and help chronic wounds get better.
But first, they have to see what happens in the lab. Kellar, who runs the Tissue Engineering & Regenerative Medicine Laboratory at NAU, starts the process by growing human skin cells in a petri dish. Next, he creates a mock wound on the sample. Under normal conditions, the wound will close in about a day, Kellar said. When arsenic-contaminated water is added to the mix, however, the healing process slows dramatically. And under heavy contamination, the healing basically stops.
“In one of the worst-case scenarios, we never saw the wound close,” Kellar said. “It stayed open. I was not expecting it to be that bad.”
Reversing the effects
Looking for answers outside the lab, Kellar and Propper searched the wound-healing literature—and they found a promising study out of Japan. In it, researchers used estrogen patches to help wounds close. So Kellar treated the arsenic-contaminated wounds in his lab with estrogen, “and lo and behold, we almost reversed the effect,” he said.
Kellar, Propper, and their team are now trying to figure out how and why that happens. It’s still early in the process, but Kellar hopes to have an answer in a year or so. In the meantime, he and Propper will continue their work—and continue to focus on helping underserved communities.
“Everyone agrees that we need clean water,” Kellar said, “not just on Native American lands in Arizona but in every community around the world. And here at NAU, we’re in the right place at the right time to do some amazing research that will help people.”
Source: Pine Magazine, Spring 2018
Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute On Minority Health And Health Disparities of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number U54MD012388. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.