Skin: A fantastic and fascinating organ

Portrait:

Highly innovative. Exploring new frontiers with high-risk high-reward ideas. Original and very visionary research. His future career will be incredible.

These are some of the words from the Global Review panel about the LEO Foundation Awardee 2019-Region Americas – Maksim Plikus – Associate Professor at the Department of Developmental and Cell Biology, School of Biological Sciences, University of California, Irvine, USA

He has received 100,000 USD for his research in skin stem cells and regeneration from the LEO Foundation.

Portrait of Maksim Plikus and his skin research

The exciting hair biology

“Skin is a very large and diverse organ with many regional differences and repetitive elements, such as hair follicles. It is very much like a complex landscape,” explains Maksim Plikus.

“To truly understand how skin works, it is not sufficient to just study its small parts. Simultaneously studying behaviors of its many parts is important. My research aims at that,” says Maks, who is focusing on cyclic growth of hair follicles. He finds hair biology very exciting:

“I study how thousands of hair follicles coordinate their growth activities with one another. Hair follicles actively communicate with one another and the decision to either grow or remain dormant is achieved by each hair follicle based on the cumulative long-range signaling input they receive from all their neighbors.”

Signaling crosstalk that hair follicles engage in is not limited to other hair follicles, but also includes non-hair follicle cell types. Prominently, hair follicles share signaling and co-regulate each other’s activities with skin adipose tissue.

Recently, Maksim Plikus showed that hair follicles in the center of early scar tissue can signal to fibroblasts and induce their conversion into fat cells. As the result, new adipose tissue can regenerate within scars.

What is unique about it?

“The scale at which we study skin – across large distances, and even across the entire skin – is fairly unique to our research,” explains Maks and continues:

“In our studies we actively incorporate mathematical modelling approaches. Large-scale skin phenomena that we study often have to do with patterns, and computational approaches are particularly well-suited for studying pattern-formation. We use mathematical models to predict candidate mechanisms of pattern-forming phenomena. We then use these predictions and test them experimentally.”

Such interdisciplinary approach can be highly successful as the tool for scientific exploration, and the Plikus group actively employ it in a number of both past and present projects.

The skin is a fantastic model

Situated at the interface with the external environment, skin has evolved to have robust regenerative responses to be able to efficiently repair itself.

“For this reason,” Maks says, “the skin is a fantastic model system for studying natural limits of tissue regeneration and for identifying regeneration promoting mechanisms,” and proclaims:

“Discoveries made in skin can ultimately be translated to organs, where regenerative responses are less efficient.”

 Where can the research of Maksim Plikus lead to?

Regenerative responses can lead to novel strategies for the Regenerative Medicine, the ones that are based on enhancing endogenous regeneration-stimulating mechanisms within tissues and organs.

“Endogenous regenerative abilities of human skin are limited as compared to other animal model organisms and, often, insufficient to achieve complete healing,” says Maksim Plikus and continues:

“New regeneration-promoting signals that our research aims to identify in model organisms can potentially be translatable to humans. For instance, our work on skin wound healing promises new strategies for regenerating adipose tissue in scars, which clinically is a highly desirable outcome.

Inspiring mentors

Maksim Plikus has always been inspired by nature as well as the classic scientific literature. But his fascination of the skin biology came by working in the laboratories of two leading scientists in the field:

“I had the honor of working with Dr. Cheng-Ming Chuong and Dr. George Cotsarelis. Both of them made significant and impactful discoveries in Developmental and Stem Cell Biology of the skin,” tells Maks.

“In both labs, I was given an opportunity to develop projects that were based on very novel and fascinating observations, that could not be explained with conventional knowledge at the time. Working on these projects opened my eyes to many other fascinating aspects of skin biology that still await answers”.

Lemonade and paddleboard

When Maks is not looking for new answers in skin biology, he does enjoy other aspects of nature.

“Living close to the Pacific Ocean, some of my most favorite activities are open-water diving and stand-up paddle boarding. On a good day, you are almost guaranteed to encounter a pod of dolphins or seals while padding,” he smiles.

What also makes him smile, is his two-year old daughter who is already very helpful watering the household’s two orange trees and a lemon tree.

“While we can make lemonades year round, orange season is however only in the winter months.”

 The very early stages

Do you want to know more about the very early stages of Maksim Plikus’ research, then have a look at this video from the LEO Foundation Award Ceremony at the SID meeting in Chicago in May 2019. Here, Maks explains the very early stages of his fascination of science when he did organic farming with his sister (watch from 5:05 – 11:11). Click here!

 The recent research

If you want to dive further into the research and Maksim Plikus, you are invited for his State of the art Plenary Lecture at the SID meeting in Chicago in May 2019: Large scale regeneration in the skin – Click here

 The LEO Foundation Award – Region EMEA will be announced in Bordeaux 18 September … Stay tuned!