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Royal visit to life-changing research facility in Swansea

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HRH The Countess of Wessex, patron to The Scar Free Foundation, visited the world-leading facial reconstruction research programme based at Swansea University, meeting patients who could benefit from these ground-breaking studies.

The £2.5 million ReconRegen programme, funded by The Scar Free Foundation and Health and Care Research Wales, launched last year. The three-year initiative is currently investigating pioneering 3D bioprinting of nose and ear cartilage using human cells, as well as the world’s largest study of how facial scarring impacts mental health.

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The Countess of Wessex, accompanied by lead Ambassador for the Foundation Simon Weston, toured the bespoke research lab, received a demonstration of the 3D printer and met patients who could benefit from this life-changing research including fellow Ambassadors Jaco Nel who survived sepsis with life changing consequences and Elizabeth Soffe who survived severe burns at just six months old and Tina Morgan, who survived skin cancer.

Simon, who has scars over 85-90 per cent of his body after a bomb hit his ship in the Falklands conflict, said: “The opportunity to rebuild the confidence of people who have facial and body disfigurements is immense. You can’t change what happens to people but through this research and development you can change what their future can look like.”

Mum-of-two Tina was diagnosed with skin cancer on her left ear in 2010. Surgery to remove the cancer was successful but it meant she lost most of the top of her ear and she now only has the lobe remaining. Tina would like to have something to replace the part of the ear she’s lost and has previously looked at treatment using cartilage from elsewhere in the body to reconstruct the ear.

“I didn’t really want to have an operation and have any of my rib removed though, so when I saw the research taking place in Swansea, I thought it seemed a more feasible way to help not only me but other people who are living every day with severe facial scarring. This could change our lives.”

The pioneering programme will develop 3D bioprinting using human cartilage specific stem/progenitor cells and nanocellulose (derived from plants) as a bioink for facial reconstruction. The project will include scientific studies to determine the ideal combination of cells to grow new cartilage which will lead to human clinical trials for facial reconstruction.

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The research is being led by Professor Iain Whitaker – who heads up the biggest plastic surgery research group in the UK – Chair of Plastic Surgery at Swansea University Medical School, part of the team at the Welsh Centre for Burns and Plastic Surgery at Morriston Hospital and Surgical Specialty Lead for Health and Care Research Wales.

He said: “It was fantastic to be able to showcase the ground-breaking research happening here in Swansea and it was an honour to chat to The Countess about the work we are doing and how it could change the lives of some of the patients and ambassadors.

“I have developed the Research Group for the last decade, and it has been been six months since we launched the programme. Following the recruitment of a full complement of staff, our research is really picking up pace. We are developing the mechanical properties of the bioink and testing the biocompatibility and safety profile for use in facial reconstruction.

“Alongside the tissue engineering and 3D bioprinting research, we are critically analysing the patient pathways in skin cancer management, and with the huge personal, health economic and environmental costs in mind – using cutting edge technologies such as natural language processing and artificial intelligence to revolutionise patient pathways. This investment has been revolutionary in catapulting our research efforts forwards with the ultimate aim of offering pioneering treatment options to patients and recruit further world class researchers into Wales in the very near future.”

HRH The Countess of Wessex speaking to Professor Iain Whitaker (Image: Swansea University)

Michael Bowdery, Head of Programmes at Health and Care Research Wales, said: “Visits like this highlight how important this work is, not only in Wales but on a national and global stage. This project is unique in not only addressing the physical impacts of scaring but also the psychological challenges which are just as important.

“Working with The Scar Free Foundation this investment will provide the resources to fast-track this innovative research, aiming to change the lives of hundreds of people in the future.”

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Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, of the Scar Free Foundation, said: “Giving surgeons the ability in the future to reconstruct people’s faces using their own cells without the need for further scarring is revolutionary. It was an honour to be given the opportunity to present our pioneering research to The Countess.

“We know that scarring can have a long term emotional and physical impact on people and this study will also help us understand how facial scarring in particular affects mental health, leading to new treatments. This life changing research is part of our commitment to achieve scar free healing within a generation for the millions of people living with scarring in the UK and across the world.”

Professor Ann John, Professor in Public Health and Psychiatry at the Swansea University Medical School, added: “So often the physical and mental are separated in healthcare despite the fact we know both are equally important to recovery. I’m excited to be a part of this innovative research collaboration bridging gaps across disciplines to address the challenges experienced by those with facial scarring.

“The centre has brought surgeons and mental health researchers together under one roof. It was an honour to discuss this with The Countess who has been a champion for reducing the stigma felt by those with mental health difficulties addressing barriers to seeking help and how we respond to those that do.”

As part of her visit to Swansea, Her Royal Highness also planted a Jubilee tree at the city’s new coastal park, which is next door to the newly opened Swansea Arena.

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(Lead image: Swansea University)

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