Doctors at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London are aiming to reconstruct people’s faces with stem cells taken from their fat.
The team has grown cartilage in the laboratory and believes it could be used to rebuild ears and noses. They say the technique, published in the journal Nanomedicine, could revolutionize care.
Experts said there was some way to go, but it had the potential to be “transformative”. The doctors want to treat conditions like microtia, that results in the ear failing to develop properly and can be missing or malformed.
At the moment, children have cartilage taken from their ribs, which is then delicately sculpted by surgeons to resemble an ear and implanted into the child. It requires multiple operations, leaves permanent scarring on the chest and the rib cartilage never recovers.
The team envisages an alternative – a tiny sample of fat would be taken from the child and stem cells would be extracted and grown from it.
An ear-shaped “scaffold” would be placed in the stem cell broth so the cells would take on the desired shape and structure. And chemicals would be used to persuade the stem cells to transform into cartilage cells.
This could then be implanted beneath the skin to give the child an ear shape.
The researchers have been able to create the cartilage in the scaffold, but safety testing is needed before they could be used in patients.
One of the researchers, Dr Patrizia Ferretti, told the BBC: “It is really exciting to have the sort of cells that are not tumorgenic, that can go back into the same patient so we don’t have the problem of immunosuppressant and can do the job you want them to do.
“It would be the Holy Grail to do this procedure 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.”