Heal thy wounds

Single-cell RNA sequencing reveals how Enterococcus faecalis infection influences skin cells and suppresses immune responses to delay wound healing.

Image credit: Nsey Benajah (CC0)

If wounds get infected, they heal much more slowly, sometimes leading to skin damage and other complications, including disseminated infections or even amputation. Infections can happen in many types of wounds, ranging from ulcers in patients with diabetes to severe burns. If infections are not cleared quickly, the wounds can become ‘chronic’ and are unable to heal without intervention.

Enterococcus faecalis is a type of bacteria that normally lives in the gut. Within that environment, in healthy people, it is not harmful. However, if it comes into contact with wounds – particularly diabetic ulcers or the site of a surgery – it can cause persistent infections and prevent healing.

Although researchers are beginning to understand how E. faecalis initially colonises wounds, the biological mechanisms that transform these infections into chronic wounds are still largely unknown. Celik et al. therefore set out to investigate exactly how E. faecalis interferes with wound healing.

To do this, Celik et al. looked at E. faecalis-infected wounds in mice and compared them to uninfected ones. Using a genetic technique called single-cell RNA sequencing, Celik et al. were able to determine which genes were switched on in individual skin and immune cells at the site of the wounds. This in turn allowed the researchers to determine how those cells were behaving in both infected and uninfected conditions.

The experiments revealed that when E. faecalis was present in wounds, several important cell types in the wounds did not behave normally. For example, although the infected skin cells still underwent a change in behaviour required for healing (called an epithelial-mesenchymal transition), the change was both premature and incomplete. In other words, the skin cells in infected wounds started changing too early and did not finish the healing process properly.

E. faecalis also changed the way macrophages and neutrophils worked within the wounds. These are cells in our immune system that normally promote inflammation, a process involved in both uninfected wounds or during infections and is a key part of wound healing when properly controlled. In the E. faecalis-infected wounds, these cells’ inflammatory properties were suppressed, making them less helpful for healing.

These results shed new light on how E. faecalis interacts with skin cells and the immune system to disrupt wound healing. Celik et al. hope that this knowledge will allow us to find new ways to target E. faecalis infections, and ultimately develop treatments to help chronic wounds heal better and faster.