Researchers have developed a technique to grow cartilage structures from the stem cells found in human fat tissue. They hope that this will pave the way for ears and noses to be grown in the laboratory and used in transplants.
The researchers took stem cells from abdominal fat and combined these with a specially-designed artificial scaffold. They succeeded in converting the cells into cartilage inside the scaffold material.
Dr Patrizia Ferretti from University College London, who led the study, said: 'This is just step one, we have just shown proof of principle that cartilage can be made from stem cells on a clinically-approved biomaterial. We haven't yet made a complete ear with related material that is biodegradable, but I am hopeful we will in the not-too-distant future'.
The technology could be used to help young people born with facial abnormalities, such as 'microtia' where the outer part of the ear is underdeveloped. Around 7,000 people are affected by microtia in the UK and thousands of babies are born with other kinds of facial abnormalities.
Current treatments require taking cartilage from other parts of the body, most commonly the ribs. This is a painful and invasive procedure and the removed cartilage does not grow back. After the cartilage has been extracted it is shaped to form the external ear and implanted under the patient's skin.
Cartilage grown on an ear-shaped scaffold from the patient's own fat stem cells would remove the need for surgery. Using the patient's own cells also means that there should be no issues with rejection. Although it would not be used to treat hearing defects, the external ear grown in the laboratory would biologically be the same as a normal ear.
Speaking to the BBC, Dr Ferretti said it was exciting to work with materials that 'don't have the problem of immunosuppression and can do the job you want them to do'.
'It would be the Holy Grail to do [an ear transplant] through a single surgery, so decreasing enormously the stress for the children and having a structure that hopefully will be growing as the child grows'.