• collagen;
  • elastin;
  • human hypertrophic scar;
  • nonlinear spectral imaging;
  • second-harmonic generation;
  • two-photon excited fluorescence


Background  A noninvasive method using microscopy and spectroscopy for analysing the morphology of collagen and elastin and their biochemical variations in skin tissue will enable better understanding of the pathophysiology of hypertrophic scars and facilitate improved clinical management and treatment of this disease.

Objective  To obtain simultaneously microscopic images and spectra of collagen and elastin fibres in ex vivo skin tissues (normal skin and hypertrophic scar) using a nonlinear spectral imaging method, and to compare the morphological structure and spectral characteristics of collagen and elastin fibres in hypertrophic scar tissues with those of normal skin, to determine whether this approach has potential for in vivo assessment of the pathophysiology of human hypertrophic scars and for monitoring treatment responses as well as for tracking the process of development of hypertrophic scars in clinic.

Methods Ex vivo human skin specimens obtained from six patients aged from 10 to 50 years old who were undergoing skin plastic surgery were examined. Five patients had hypertrophic scar lesions and one patient had no scar lesion before we obtained his skin specimen. A total of 30 tissue section samples of 30 μm thickness were analysed by the use of a nonlinear spectral imaging system consisting of a femtosecond excitation light source, a high-throughput scanning inverted microscope, and a spectral imaging detection system. The high-contrast and high-resolution second harmonic generation (SHG) images of collagen and two-photon excited fluorescence (TPEF) images of elastin fibres in hypertrophic scar tissues and normal skin were acquired using the extracting channel tool of the system. The emission spectra were analysed using the image-guided spectral analysis method. The depth-dependent decay constant of the SHG signal and the image texture characteristics of hypertrophic scar tissue and normal skin were used to quantitatively assess the amount, distribution and orientation of their collagen and elastin components.

Results  Our experiments and data analyses demonstrated apparent differences between hypertrophic scar tissue and normal skin in terms of their morphological structure and the spectral characteristics of collagen and elastin fibres. These differences can potentially be used to distinguish hypertrophic scar tissues from normal skin and to evaluate treatment responses.

Conclusions  All the measurements were performed in backscattering geometry and demonstrated that nonlinear spectral imaging has the ability to differentiate hypertrophic scar tissue from normal skin based on noninvasive SHG imaging, and TPEF imaging revealed the microstructure and spectral features of collagenand elastin fibres. With the advances in spectral imaging apparatus miniaturization, we have good reason to believe that this approach can become a valuable tool for the in vivo pathophysiology study of human skin hypertrophic scars and for assessing the treatment responses of this disfiguring disease in clinic. It can also be used to track the development of hypertrophic scars and to study wound healing processes in a noninvasive fashion without biopsy, fixation, sectioning and the use of exogenous dyes or stains.