A Lucky Lab Accident Leads to the Discovery of Test-Tube Skin—and Saves Two Boys' Lives

updated 09/03/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/03/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The three kids were just fooling around, exploring an unoccupied house in their Casper, Wyo. neighborhood, when they found cans of paint in a cupboard. They started playing with it, splashing some on the walls, some in a fireplace—and some on themselves in the process. Then, perhaps realizing that they might get into trouble, they stripped off their clothes and tried to wash off the evidence with a gasoline-based solvent. During that cleanup, one of them struck a match, and the room exploded like a Molotov cocktail. The boys—Glen Selby, 7, his brother, Jamie, 5, and Ricky Parras, 6—were almost incinerated. Burns—the vast majority of them third degree—covered more than 95 percent of their bodies. The boys were rushed to a Denver hospital, but Parras died two days later, and the Selby brothers were not given much chance to live.

That was July 1, 1983. The Selby boys are still alive—thanks to a very different kind of accident. In 1974 Dr. Howard Green, then a professor of cell biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was experimenting with mouse tumors when he noticed unusual colonies of cells growing in the culture flasks. They turned out to be epidermal—or skin—cells. Although the cells bore little relation to Dr. Green's cancer research, he began cultivating them in a special laboratory "broth" and found that they multiplied 10,000-fold within a month. Green, an M.D. who has made a career of pure science rather than patient care, knew that he had made a critical discovery. "It was not my intention to study epidermal cells," he says, "but obviously if you could grow a lot of human skin cells, you were bound to see the practical uses."

Green, 58, experimented with lab mice for several years before teaming up with Dr. Nicholas O'Connor, 46, a Boston plastic surgeon, to use the discovery to repair human skin. O'Connor had transplanted the "test-tube skin" on eight human patients when the Selbys' Denver physician—who knew of O'Connor's work—asked the Shriners Burns Institute in Boston to try to save the boys. Without much optimism O'Connor and his colleagues agreed. "I knew that without our skin," he says, "those kids didn't have a hope in hell."

The brothers were flown in a private jet by the Denver Children's Hospital to Boston, where quarter-size patches of skin were cut from their armpits, one of the few unburned parts of their bodies. These samples were brought to Dr. Green's laboratory at Harvard, where he cultivated test-tube skin. During a five-week period last summer O'Connor and a colleague, Dr. G. Gregory Gallico III, sewed playing-card-size patches of laboratory skin onto the boys' muscle tissues—150 grafts for Jamie, 200 for Glen. Today half their skin is composed of test-tube epidermis (the other half is from more traditional forms of grafts). The new skin does not contain sweat glands or hair follicles, but it seems to be growing normally. "The two boys could have died anytime in the first two months," says O'Connor. "Their survival is almost unprecedented. They have tremendous spirit."

That spirit has been tested constantly during the past year. Glen Selby, now 8, nearly died when his blood pressure dropped during an operation last spring. He remains in the acute care section at Shriners. He walks only with assistance and is confined to his bed for most of the day. He longs to see his cat, Sunshine, and he has decorated his room with pictures of his pet, says his mother, Carmelita (Spike) Selby, 30, a cafeteria worker. (She was divorced in 1980 from the boys' father, Glen Sr., 36, a construction worker.) Despite his pain, Glen enjoys a few pleasures: He is cheered by the packages of letters, drawings and joke books that his Casper classmates send every week, and, since they are among the few areas where he has much feeling, he loves to have the soles of his feet rubbed.

Last spring, Jamie, now 6, who was burned slightly less severely than Glen, was able to return to school in Casper for a couple of months. (He is now back in Boston for reconstructive surgery.) The homecoming was a difficult experience. Although the doctors hope that further surgery—perhaps twice a year for the next five years, with the bill picked up by the Shriners—will eventually give the boys a more normal appearance, Jamie limped into his class with his body stooped, one arm frozen in an extended position, his face scarred and his head heavily bandaged. His classmates had been prepared for his frightening appearance by viewing videotapes of him taken at the hospital. Still, when he arrived, most of them simply stared. "Some treated him rudely, but I was really pleased with the way he handled it," says his mother. "He walked right into that classroom. He knew he could do it, and he just did it." After recovering from the shock, his classmates threw Jamie a party, serving the food that he said he had missed most during his grueling hospital stay—pizza topped with Canadian bacon and pineapple. Soon the bandaged boy was right at home. "He felt safe and secure in this class," says his teacher, Suzanne Leathers. "He's an incredible little guy."

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