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15.11.09

Breakthrough for New Breasts after Cancer Surgery


A revolutionary operation could soon allow women to regrow their breasts after cancer surgery. The technique offers fresh hope to the thousands of women every year whose breasts are removed in a mastectomy.

Current reconstructive techniques produce far from perfect results and can leave scars. The new method would create breasts that look and feel more natural, while reducing the amount of scarring.

It would also give women who have endured months of gruelling treatment a huge boost to their confidence. Breast cancer affects more than 45,000 British women a year and kills more than 1,000 a month.

Around 12,000 women, including some whose genes put them at high risk of the disease, have a mastectomy each year. The latest reconstructive technique, which could be in widespread use in three years, involves growing breast tissue from a teaspoonful of cells.

The Australian doctors behind the surgery have already successfully tested it on pigs and plan to carry out operations on women within months. The successfully grown pig breast, at the Bernard O'Brien Institute in Melbourne Phillip Marzella, of Melbourne's Bernard O'Brien Institute, said: 'We hope it will have a significant impact on the world.

'We also like to think that it would alleviate the shock that a woman feels when she is diagnosed with breast cancer, to know she could possibly grow her breasts back.'

The technique involves inserting a bra-cup-shaped chamber under a woman's chest skin containing 5ml of stem cells, drawn from her fat. A blood vessel from under the woman's arm is redirected through the chamber where it supplies the area with oxygen and nutrients.

The stem cells, 'master cells' widely seen as a repair kit for the body, turn into fat cells over several months, eventually multiplying enough to fill the chamber.

The woman would then have a second operation to remove the chamber, although the researchers are hopeful of creating biodegradable devices that dissolve instead. In pigs, the entire process took six weeks. But it is expected it will take six to eight months for women to regrow breast tissue.

The Australian trial will involve five or six women who have had a full or partial mastectomy. The doctors will not attempt to regenerate entire breasts but simply check that it is possible to regrow fat tissue in the breast area.

If larger trials show the technique to be safe and effective, it could quickly be in widespread use. Dr Sarah Cant, of the British charity Breakthrough Breast Cancer, described it as 'extraordinary'.

'The next stage is to see if this technique will be safe and effective in people and only then can we assess its true potential,' she added.

'We know that losing a breast can impact a woman's self-esteem and so any new, potentially improved, breast reconstruction techniques will be very welcome.'

But Anthony Hollander, professor of tissue engineering at Bristol University, warned: 'They'll 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.

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