Researchers from The University of Western Australia’s Burn Injury Research Unit are seeking people with keloid scarring to trial a new treatment that could halt growth of the scars while avoiding the side effects of current treatment.
The tumour-like scars are benign but uncontrollable growths that can develop at the site of burn wounds or after simple injuries such as scratches, insect stings, ear piercings or needle injections.
The bulky scarring, which overgrows the boundaries of the original wound site, often occurs in highly visible locations such as the face, neck, shoulders and upper chest. It can lead to pain, itching, embarrassment and other psychological distress, and can return – often worse than before – when surgically removed.
Researcher Patricia Danielsen, a visiting Danish dermatologist-in-training and visiting research fellow at the Burn Injury Research Unit headed by UWA Winthrop Professor Fiona Wood, said it was not clear what caused keloid scarring.
However, it was more likely to affect people with darker skin pigmentation, seemed to be more common amongst women – perhaps because of their higher incidence of pierced ears – and typically affected people aged between 10 and 30-40 years of age.
“You have some kind of trauma and the skin is repaired but it continues to build up and grow beyond the initial boundaries of the wound,” Dr Danielsen said.
“Some people end up with quite a bulky tumour of scar tissue and have a lot of serious symptoms. They can have pain and itching and there’s quite a heavy psychological side to it, but they might not seek help because they don’t know we might have an alternative treatment for them, or they may have just given up.”
Dr Danielsen said current treatment involved surgically removing the keloid scar, followed by corticosteroid injections into the wound. Surgery alone was never enough because the keloids grew back, often bigger than before. Growth-inhibiting adjuvant drug therapy was essential but the use of corticosteroid injections came with the risk of side effects.
Instead, UWA researchers will trial the drug Verapamil, better known for treating heart complaints and migraines but which may also help to treat scar tissue.
“Verapamil is very well known – we know all the side effects and they’re not too serious,” Dr Danielsen said. “The aim of the study is to see if the treatment is just as good as the traditional treatment but hopefully with fewer side effects.”
During the year-long randomised trial funded by the Fiona Wood Foundation, participants will have their keloid scars removed under local anaesthetic by Professor Wood or Professor Suzanne Rea. At regular intervals over the following year, they will be treated with injections of Verapamil and closely monitored for signs of re-growth.
“We can’t offer this treatment yet as a standard treatment but it is a well-known and widely known medication,” Dr Danielsen said. “We need first to know how it goes, with long enough follow-up time to be certain the keloid scars won’t regrow.”
Researchers need about 30 participants aged over 18. People interested in taking part or who want to find out more can contact the Burn Injuries Research Unit on 6488 8133 or visit the Foundation website.