by Sharon Beder
The samples of human skin used in Mason's research are usually neonatal foreskin taken as a result of circumcisions. But it is also possible to take skin at surgical operations. Cells from the skin of new born babies tend to grow better than adult cells. So this makes foreskins a convenient type of skin to use, but in theory any type of skin can be used. There are more pigment cells in certain parts of the skin. The foreskin, and genital skin in general, happens to have quite a high number of pigment cells. This also makes it quite useful. But one potential disadvantage in using neonatal circumcision skin is that it is all from male parts. We do try and confirm what we are doing with some female skin samples from surgical operations, says Mason. But it is not always easy to persuade surgeons to give up extra pieces of skin. They need it for skin closures. But occasionally they will and obviously all of this has to be done with the consent of the individuals concerned from whom the skin is taken. Most people are quite happy to cooperate.
No difference has been detected to date between male skin and female skin but these comparisons are continuing. One of the problems to consider in these comparisons is the inevitable age difference between male neonatal foreskin samples and the usually adult female samples taken from surgical operations.
Mason encounters constant difficulty getting sufficient skin samples. There are a number of people around who are always trying to get their hands on foreskins. Mason's team has had very marked cooperation from a number of hospitals including Bankstown, Greenoaks Private and some private practitioners. Circumcisions are no longer as popular as they once were although medical reasons are now beginning to reverse this trend again. But Mason would still like to get more and is constantly trying to find new sources.
People could donate skin. At this stage there is an instrument called a suction blister device. Mason has donated skin by this method herself. Basically it has 5 little tiny holes attached to a suction device. The sucker is put on your skin and the vacuum applied and after about 30 minutes you get what looks like a blister. The blister breaks the contact between the epidermis and the dermis just at the junction between the two. If you cut off the top of the blister you have got the epidermis to work with and it would be possible for people to donate skin in this way. One of these devices is located at the Skin and Cancer Foundation and another at the Department of Dermatology at Sydney University.
But this method isn't without its difficulties. Making the blisters is totally painless but cutting off the blister can feel a bit like getting a graze. It might be done more comfortable using a local anaesthetic although that may potentially cause problems with the cells later. It is certainly possible to get skin samples from donations made this way, says Mason. But I think if we were going to get volunteers to do that we would probably have to provide them with some compensation for their time and for having to wear a bandage on their arms for a few days because it does take a few days to clear up.