Stress, both acute and chronic, can impair cutaneous wound repair, which has previously been mechanistically ascribed to stress-induced elevations of cortisol. Here we aimed to examine an alternate explanation that the stress-induced hormone epinephrine directly impairs keratinocyte motility and wound re-epithelialization. Burn wounds are examined as a prototype of a high-stress, high-epinephrine, wound environment. Because keratinocytes express the β2-adrenergic receptor (β2AR), another study objective was to determine whether β2AR antagonists could block epinephrine effects on healing and improve wound repair.
Methods and Findings
Migratory rates of normal human keratinocytes exposed to physiologically relevant levels of epinephrine were measured. To determine the role of the receptor, keratinocytes derived from animals in which the β2AR had been genetically deleted were similarly examined. The rate of healing of burn wounds generated in excised human skin in high and low epinephrine environments was measured. We utilized an in vivo burn wound model in animals with implanted pumps to deliver β2AR active drugs to study how these alter healing in vivo. Immunocytochemistry and immunoblotting were used to examine the up-regulation of catecholamine synthetic enzymes in burned tissue, and immunoassay for epinephrine determined the levels of this catecholamine in affected tissue and in the circulation. When epinephrine levels in the culture medium are elevated to the range found in burn-stressed animals, the migratory rate of both cultured human and murine keratinocytes is impaired (reduced by 76%, 95% confidence interval [CI] 56%–95% in humans, p < 0.001, and by 36%, 95% CI 24%–49% in mice, p = 0.001), and wound re-epithelialization in explanted burned human skin is delayed (by 23%, 95% CI 10%–36%, p = 0.001), as compared to cells or tissues incubated in medium without added epinephrine. This impairment is reversed by β2AR antagonists, is absent in murine keratinocytes that are genetically depleted of the β2AR, and is reproduced by incubation of keratinocytes with other β2AR-specific agonists. Activation of the β2AR in cultured keratinocytes signals the down-regulation of the AKT pathway, accompanied by a stabilization of the actin cytoskeleton and an increase in focal adhesion formation, resulting in a nonmigratory phenotype. Burn wound injury in excised human skin also rapidly up-regulates the intra-epithelial expression of the epinephrine synthesizing enzyme phenylethanolamine-N-methyltransferase, and tissue levels of epinephrine rise dramatically (15-fold) in the burn wounded tissue (values of epinephrine expressed as pg/ug protein ± standard error of the mean: unburned control, 0.6 ± 0.36; immediately postburn, 9.6 ± 1.58; 2 h postburn, 3.1 ± 1.08; 24 h post-burn, 6.7 ± 0.94). Finally, using an animal burn wound model (20% body surface in mice), we found that systemic treatment with βAR antagonists results in a significant increase (44%, 95% CI 27%–61%, p < 0.00000001) in the rate of burn wound re-epithelialization.
This work demonstrates an alternate pathway by which stress can impair healing: by stress-induced elevation of epinephrine levels resulting in activation of the keratinocyte β2AR and the impairment of cell motility and wound re-epithelialization. Furthermore, since the burn wound locally generates epinephrine in response to wounding, epinephrine levels are locally, as well as systemically, elevated, and wound healing is impacted by these dual mechanisms. Treatment with beta adrenergic antagonists significantly improves the rate of burn wound re-epithelialization. This work suggests that specific β2AR antagonists may be apt, near-term translational therapeutic targets for enhancing burn wound healing, and may provide a novel, low-cost, safe approach to improving skin wound repair in the stressed individual.
Rivkah Isseroff and colleagues describe how stress-induced elevation of epinephrine levels can impair the healing of burns in mice and suggest that β2 adrenergic receptor antagonists may have a role in improving skin wound repair.
Skin—the largest organ in the human body—protects the rest of the body against infection by forming an impervious layer over the whole external body surface. Consequently, if this layer is damaged by rubbing, cutting, or burning, it must be quickly and efficiently repaired. Wound repair (healing) involves several different processes. First, the clotting cascade stops bleeding at the wound site and immune system cells attracted into the site remove any bacteria or debris in the wound. Various factors are released by the immune cells and the other cells in and near the damaged area that encourage the migration of several different sorts of cells into the wound. These cells proliferate and prepare the wound for “re-epithelialization.” In this process, keratinocytes (a type of epithelial cell that makes a tough, insoluble protein called keratin; epithelial cells cover all the surfaces of the body) migrate into the wound site and form a new, intact epithelial layer. If any of these processes fail, the result can be a chronic (long-lasting) nonhealing wound. In particular, if the wound does not re-epithelialize, it remains open and susceptible to infection and loss of body fluids.
Why Was This Study Done?
One factor that impairs the repair of skin wounds is stress. In stressful situations (including situations in which wounds are likely to occur), the human body releases several chemicals that prepare the body for “fight or flight,” including cortisol and epinephrine (also called adrenaline). Most scientists ascribe the effects of stress on wound healing to stress-induced increases in cortisol, but might stress-induced epinephrine also affect wound healing? In this study, the researchers test whether epinephrine impairs keratinocyte migration and re-epithelialization of burn wounds (keratinocytes have a receptor for epinephrine called the β2 adrenergic receptor [β2AR] on their cell surface that allows them to respond to epinephrine). They chose to study burn wounds for two reasons. First, major burns cause a massive release of stress chemicals into the bloodstream that raises blood levels (systemic levels) of cortisol and epinephrine for days or weeks after the initial trauma. Second, despite recent therapeutic advances, many people still die from major burns (4,000 every year in the USA alone) so there is a pressing need for better ways to treat this type of wound.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers investigated the effects of epinephrine on wound healing in three types of experiments. First, they looked at the effect of epinephrine on keratinocytes growing in dishes (in vitro experiments). Levels of epinephrine similar to those in the blood of stressed individuals greatly inhibited the motility and migration of human keratinocytes (isolated from the foreskin of newborn babies) and of mouse keratinocytes. It also inhibited the repair of scratch wounds made in monolayers of keratinocytes growing on dishes. Treatment of the cultures with a β2AR antagonist (a chemical that prevents epinephrine activating the β2AR) reversed the effects of epinephrine. In addition, the migration of mouse keratinocytes that had been genetically altered so that they did not express β2AR was not inhibited by epinephrine. Next, the researchers investigated the healing of burn wounds made in small pieces of human skin growing in dishes (ex vivo experiments). Burn injuries rapidly increased the amount of epinephrine in these tissue explants, they report, and treatment of the explants with a βAR antagonist (an inhibitor of all types of βARs) greatly increased wound re-epithelialization. Finally, the researchers report that the re-epithelialization of burn wounds in living mice was improved when the mice were treated with a β2AR antagonist.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings reveal a second pathway by which stress can impair wound healing. They show that stress-induced increases in systemic and local epinephrine activate β2ARs on keratinocytes and that this activation inhibits keratinocyte motility and wound re-epithelialization. Although results obtained in animals do not always reflect what happens in people, the finding that the treatment of mice with β2AR antagonists improves the rate of burn wound re-epithelialization, suggests that beta blockers—drugs that inhibit all βARs and that are widely used to treat high blood pressure and to prevent heart disease—or specific β2AR antagonists might provide a new therapeutic approach to the treatment of burns and, perhaps, chronic nonhealing wounds.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000012.
Wikipedia has pages on wound healing, burn injuries, and epinephrine (Note: Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)
The MedlinePlus Encyclopedia has a page on burns (in English and Spanish)
MedlinePlus provides links to other information on burns (in English and Spanish)