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Main Line Health scientist attracts $1M gift to advance revolutionary research into scarless healing—even for age-associated chronic wounds

Lankenau Medical Center September 15, 2022 Research News

Ellen Heber-Katz, PhD, named inaugural chairholder of The Daniel B. and Florence E. Green Endowed Chair as drugs to generate new tissue draw closer

Merion Station, PA — Scientists had thought only starfish and amphibians like frogs and salamanders could heal wounds in a way that looked as if the injury never occurred, even regenerating entire limbs. Mammals—including humans—had lost the ability to generate new tissue to evolution.

Then Ellen Heber-Katz, PhD, found a strain of laboratory mice that proved them wrong. Her mid-1990s discovery not only sparked hope for human scarless healing but triggered headlines worldwide.

Now, progress by the pioneering scientist, who came to the Lankenau Institute for Medical Research (LIMR) (part of Main Line Health) with the mission to develop drugs activating the regeneration switch in humans, has attracted a $1 million donation aimed to support momentum toward this goal.

Dr. Heber-Katz was named inaugural chairholder of The Daniel B. and Florence E. Green Endowed Chair in Regenerative Medicine Research today. The chair was established with a $1 million gift from The Green Family Foundation, paired with a $1 million match from the Lankenau Medical Center Foundation through its matching initiative designed to encourage large-scale, transformational philanthropic commitments.

“I can’t tell you how grateful I am to receive this generous support,” Dr. Heber-Katz said. “Years ago, when I discovered the potential for a treatment that would combat degenerative diseases and aging, I received a lot of pushback. But I persisted. Now, this gift will accelerate the timetable for testing in humans and, I firmly believe, bring a drug to market.”

Dr. Heber-Katz has two key products near the stage for human testing:

  • A drug in the form of a hydrogel. She and a research colleague at the University of California-Berkeley received a patent for the drug, which would be injected under the skin and is aimed at restoring chronic skin wounds as well as tissue damaged by natural aging. Wounds often do not heal for older people.
  • A suture infused with a compound that will limit scarring. LIMR has applied for domestic and international patents.

Dr. Heber-Katz also has a grant from the Department of Defense, whose interest was piqued by the possibility of healing wartime injuries such as lost fingers, hands and limbs.

She received funding from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research as well as she moved into treating bone loss from periodontal disease, a condition affecting a majority of Americans over their lifetimes.

LIMR President George Prendergast, PhD, called Dr. Heber-Katz’s program “perhaps the most forward-looking and provocative at the Institute” and said it may accomplish what stem cells have yet to do.

“Unlike most strategies for tissue regeneration, which are based on implanting or transplanting stem cells, Ellen’s approach offers an off-the-shelf option that represents true FDA-approvable medicine,” Dr. Prendergast said. “Perhaps even more intriguingly, she has found the application of her approach in aged animals seems to produce a rejuvenating effect, stimulating an anti-aging phenomenon. How durable this effect may be is not yet clear, but the key is we’ll soon be ready to do the studies.”

The Green Family Foundation said it is honored to establish the endowed chair and both “recognize and amplify the remarkable research efforts of Heber-Katz.”

Dr. Heber-Katz achieved her first breakthrough in 1996. That’s when she discovered that a larger-than-usual strain of mice called MRL (Murphy Roths Large) could completely heal small holes in their ears without scarring (ear holes help to distinguish mice during research studies). The tissue didn’t look like typical adult healing, instead appearing more embryonic. Dr. Heber-Katz soon discovered that MRL mice could even generate brand new tissue in damaged hearts.

In the 2000s, her work sparked international headlines, including “Just like Terminator, mouse ears will be back” (Chicago Tribune), “‘Miracle mouse’ can grow back lost limbs” (London Sunday Times), and “For a strain of mice, hearts can regenerate” (New York Times). Her research also inspired bestselling author James Rollins’ 2002 novel Amazonia. He made her work central to the plot and recorded a short video shown at last night’s ceremony to thank her.

Then, at the Wistar Institute, starting in 2006, Dr. Heber-Katz and colleagues defined a set of master molecules that control the pathway to tissue regeneration.

Dr. Prendergast hired her in 2016 to develop a drug to increase the presence of a master molecule called hypoxia-inducible factor 1 alpha (HIF-1a), which would activate tissue regeneration during the body’s healing response.

Heber-Katz has received federal funding for 80% percent of her research totaling $10.2 million. The remaining 20% ($2.2 million) is financed by nongovernmental resources.

About Lankenau Institute for Medical Research

Lankenau Institute for Medical Research (LIMR) is a nonprofit biomedical research institute located on the campus of Lankenau Medical Center and is part of Main Line Health. Founded in 1927, LIMR's mission is to improve human health and well-being. Faculty and staff are devoted to advancing innovative new approaches to formidable medical challenges, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disorders and autoimmune diseases, such as diabetes and arthritis. LIMR's principal investigators conduct basic, preclinical and translational research, using their findings to explore ways to improve disease detection, diagnosis, treatment and prevention. They are committed to extending the boundaries of human health through technology transfer and training of the next generation of scientists and physicians.

Contact

Larry Hanover
Communications Manager, LIMR
Office: 484.476.8425
[email protected]