Nearly two decades ago, Professor Fiona Wood was the face of Australia’s response to the Bali bombings – the single largest loss of life due to an act of terror in our national history – and the co-creator of a revolutionary burns treatment known as spray-on skin. This October 12 will mark the 20-year anniversary of those attacks, and in that time, Wood has continued to drive groundbreaking research into burns trauma.
Professor Fiona Woods’ ultimate goal is achieving scarless healing.Credit:Tony McDonough
“It is a long time [since Bali], but it doesn’t get any easier to talk about, I’d have to say,” says Wood. “I have feelings on both ends of the seesaw. I have overwhelming sadness for the loss – the loss of potential of those lives and the impact that had on lives around them. And then, the other end of the spectrum, I remember working in an environment where everyone said, ‘Yes, let’s get on with this.’ And doing an extraordinary amount of work with a great collegiate feel and being supported by the whole community, not just here in Western Australia but burns teams across the whole country: we were supported enormously by our communities and by our colleagues, and so we could deliver the care that we did. So it was a very special kind of time – but as a result of such a profound negative.”
Wood’s spray-on skin, now called ReCell, was widely publicised in the aftermath of Bali. It has now been used in more than 30 countries, on some 15,000 patients. Wood, meanwhile, has moved on to new things. Speaking from the University of Western Australia’s Burn Injury Research unit, of which she is director, she explains that her team is now investigating the possibility of replacing deeper skin layers via 3D bio-printing.
“We’re printing different kinds of matrices or scaffolds to try and build the framework that cells can go into and express themselves, so they grow more complete skin,” she says. Another project involves the trialling of a new surgical tool, known as an iKnife, which provides real-time analysis of the viability of skin being removed during burns debridement surgery, “to make sure our excision or removal of the burn is complete.” Her team is also running clinical trials into a new “scarless” healing cream, which aims to change the collagen structure of scars. “The big question is, ‘Can we un-scar the scar?’ ” says Wood. “It’s very exciting.”
Her ultimate goal? Scarless healing, in all its facets. “Burns can cause changes in some people that are vulnerable – changes for life,” says Wood. “So we talk about the physical scar, and we work on that. And the psychological scar, and we work on that. And now we talk about the physiological scar” – the systemic changes, in some burns patients, that appear to make them more vulnerable to future infection, cancer, perhaps even early death.
“That’s when we start to get the traction and really start to push forward. Because, you know, accidents happen and lives change in an instant. And so to be able to do this better, to reduce that suffering, remains my passion.”
Wood made the comments while speaking on the latest episode of Good Weekend Talks – a “magazine for your ears” featuring conversations between the best journalists from The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and the people captivating Australia right now. A cover story on Wood, Skin in the Game, appears in today’s Good Weekend.
To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.
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