Epidermolysis bullosa, a deadly skin disease, can be treated by stem cells, according to the study published in the August 12 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Epidermolysis bullosa (EB) is a rare genetic skin disease caused by mutations in the gene for collagen. Collagen is a protein that keeps the top layers of skin together. In people suffering from the skin diseases, even normal activities cause the skin to blister and scrape off leaving them open to an increased risk of infections and skin cancer. And most of the patients with EB usually die young at the age of 20s or 30s.

Following positive data from animal studies that the stem cells found in bone marrow might be able to transform into skin cells and help repair the skin damaged by EB, researchers at the University of Minnesota tested the stem cells transplants procedure in six pediatric patients between October 2007 and August 2009.

Among the treated kids, one child died from graft rejection and infection. However, the other five showed significant improvement after the treatment.

"A rare subpopulation of stem cells in the marrow had the potential for homing to the skin and repairing this disease," says lead author Dr. John Wagner of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. "This tells us more about the potential power of stem cells. Their time alive is a life of pain and being unable to do anything that's even remotely normal," he says while suggesting that there was no hope for patients diagnosed with the disease.

The children's skin showed less blistering and better wound healing post-transplant. Testing of the kids' skin samples showed that they had started to make the missing collagen protein, according to Wagner.

"Not only are we seeing improvement in the healing of their skin, but their quality of life has changed," Wagner said. The patient with the most dramatic improvement can now play on slides and trampolines, activities that would have been unthinkable before the transplant, he said.

Stem cell transplant, however, could work only for those with severe forms of the disease, those for whom "the alternative is a horrible quality of life and shortened survival,'' Wagner said adding that "this gives us hope that stem cells will have the capacity to differentiate -- even from adult tissues -- into other cell types."

The researchers are currently studying more children with EB and also trying to isolate the stem cells from bone marrow.