Meet the Adelaide surgeon who is revolutionising burns care in SA

By Melissa Keogh

Sixteen years ago Professor Dr John Greenwood AM was headhunted from the UK to help save lives at the Royal Adelaide Hospital’s (RAH) Adult Burns Centre.

Since then the Englishman and now proud South Australian has developed a suite of skin substitute products that will completely transform burns care in South Australia.

With the help of these innovative procedures and the opening of the world-class new RAH, Prof. Greenwood says SA has built “the best burns unit in the world”.

“We have been working towards the introduction of new materials and these materials have not only improved what we do, they have changed the way we do it,” he says.

“They have created a complete parallel shift in burns care in South Australia.”

The RAH Adult Burns Unit’s catchment area extends across SA, the Northern Territory and western parts of New South Wales and Victoria.

About 450 inpatients come through the doors every year, suffering from thermal, chemical, electrical and radiation burns and many of them presenting horrific, “non-survivable” injuries.

Prof. John Greenwood's

Prof. John Greenwood’s suite of skin substitute products will replace the need for patients to undergo multiple notoriously painful skin grafts.

After specialising in chronic wounds management and treating victims of Australian bushfires and the 2002 Bali bombings, Prof. Greenwood longed to improve his patients’ chances at survival.

Typical burns treatment involves multiple skin grafts, which are notoriously painful skin transplants from other parts of the body.

“I realised I could do something about the skin problem by creating some materials that would replace the need for a skin graft,” Prof. Greenwood says.

He developed a world-first bioreactor which grows large amounts of skin in 28 days.

It is done by taking a small tissue sample from the patient to grow full thickness skin in the lab.

At the same time, Prof. Greenwood, with the help of the CSIRO and Melbourne company PolyNovo, developed a biodegradable dressing that is placed on the wound and provides a bed for the new skin to grow over.

“I wanted to use something that was easy to manufacture, that was light and cheap, that they could produce large volumes of quickly, sterilise and transport easily, and had no special storage requirements,” he says.

The dressing prevents the wound from contracting and acts as a barrier to infection until the new skin is grown from the lab.

This innovative process will replace the need for multiple, painful skin grafts often involving healthy skin being repetitively taken from the same site.

In 2016 Prof. Greenwood’s research efforts lead him to being named South Australia’s Australian of the Year.

He says the state’s encouragement of medical research and its world-class facilities have kept him in SA.

“Adelaide has some fantastic minds,” he says.

“St Peter’s College alone has produced three Nobel Prize winners and the government and other organisations have made it as such that funding for research is not only available, it’s encouraged.”

Prof. Greenwood is proud of the RAH’s accreditation with the American Burns Association and American College of Surgeons.

“We are the only unit in the world outside of North America that has that standard,” he says.

“We are maintaining a fantastic standard and it’s that kind of thing that keeps me going.”

This month’s I Choose SA for Industries stories are made possible by sponsor, the University of South Australia.