Women desiring either reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy or breast enlargement without implants may some day be able to grow their own new breast tissue. Researchers working in the field of tissue engineering are developing ways to stimulate new tissue growth from cells from the patient’s own body. Because the cells are the patient’s own, their growth does not stimulate an attack by the body’s immune system that can lead to rejection of the new tissue. Results from recent experiments in mice are promising, but researchers caution that testing of the procedure in humans is at least 5 years away.
A recent article in New Scientist magazine reports on research presented at a meeting of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. At the meeting tissue engineer Kevin Cronin described the technique that he and his colleagues at the Bernard O’Brien Institute of Microsurgery in Melbourne, Australia, used to grow new breast tissue in mice. The new tissue was originally grown on the groin of a mouse, then transplanted to the animal’s chest area.
To get new tissue to grow, the scientists implanted a cylindrical silicone chamber on top of a blood vessel in the mouse’s groin. The chamber contains a small amount of the tissue to be augmented supported by a “scaffold” of biological material. Within about 10 days small blood vessels begin to sprout from the large vessel and infiltrate the scaffolding gel. Shortly afterwards, the breast tissue begins to grow into the gel. As the breast tissue continues to grow, nourished by the new blood vessels, the biodegradable scaffolding gel dissolves, leaving a section of healthy new tissue.
As promising as the new technique is, it is not without drawbacks. One great concern is that, in women who have had a breast removed because of cancer, growing new tissue from the woman’s own breast tissue may stimulate the growth of cancer as well. “In the case of someone who has already had breast cancer, it would be difficult to ensure that the cells used to regenerate the breast tissue did not also contain the cancer-causing genetic machinery,” tissue engineer Julia Polak from Imperial College School of Medicine in London told New Scientist, according to the Australian publication The Age.
For this reason Cronin’s colleagues think that fat tissue, which can be grown in the same way, will be a better choice than breast tissue for breast reconstruction or augmentation. (Breasts contain both breast tissue and fat.)
And the applications of tissue engineering are not limited to breast reconstruction or augmentation. Researchers envision using these techniques to create new cartilage, livers, hearts, and bladders.