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Trial to re-grow breasts after cancer surgery planned for next year

16 November 2009
Appeared in BioNews 534

Scientists in Australia have developed a way for women diagnosed with breast cancer to regrow their breasts after a mastectomy. The group at the Bernard O'Brien Institute of Microsurgery in Melbourne plan to start clinical trials with the technique next year. It is believed that this will be only the second time in the world that tissue engineering has been carried out in a human.

During the process, surgeons implant a chamber acting as a scaffold into which the new breast will grow. The chamber contains a small amount of the woman's fat tissue that has had its stem cell concentration enhanced in the lab, is injected with a gel-like substance that stimulates growth of fat, and is connected to the blood supply from the woman's underarm via an inserted blood vessel. The fat tissue will grow and fill the cavity within six to eight months, leaving a natural-feeling breast entirely composed of fat once the scaffold is surgically removed.

'Nature abhors a vacuum, so the chamber itself, which is empty, tends to be filled by the body,' explains Dr Phillip Marzella, chief operating officer of the Bernard O'Brien Institute. He says that they are also hoping to develop a biodegradable prototype to avoid the removal of the scaffold after growth within 24 months.

Professor Wayne Morrison led the team, who successfully tested the technique in mice and pigs, the latter of which grew new breasts in six weeks. Providing the clinical trials are successful in humans that have undergone partial or total mastectomies, the scientists hope the technique will replace current methods of reconstructing breasts or using implants to repair or cover up damage. Dr Marzella said of the technique: 'Certainly it doesn't relieve [patients] of the trauma of the cancer but certainly it could be offering patients an alternative and some sort of relief from the diagnosis of breast cancer to know that they can regrow the breast'.

He also said that the technique could be used to grow other organs: 'We are hoping to move on to other organs using the same principle - a chamber that protects and contains cells as they grow and restore their normal function'. The procedure could potentially be applied to breast enlargements or other cosmetic purposes, although this is not likely to be used for some ten years.

Professor Anthony Hollander, a tissue engineering expert at the University of Bristol, UK, said that the technique was simple and a 'really nice approach', but that the team 'have to be able to demonstrate a technique that guarantees that all the cancerous cells are removed and none are grown up in the process, so there is still some way to go'. The director of cancer information at Cancer Research UK, Dr Lesley Walker, says that 'having a mastectomy can be a very difficult experience for many women and so research to improve breast reconstruction after surgery is important'.

30 September 2013 - by Claire Downes 
Transplanting people's own stem cells along with their fat could mean more stable transplants in reconstructive breast surgery, a small preliminary trial suggests...
18 April 2011 - by Dr Rosie Morley 
Scientists at Edinburgh University have grown kidney structures in the laboratory in a step they hope will lead to organs being grown for transplant patients from their own stem cells...
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