Australian scientists plan to regrow breasts after cancer

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian scientists have developed a surgical technique that may allow cancer-suffering women to regrow their breasts after having a mastectomy, with human trials planned to start within three to six months.

The procedure involves inserting a breast-shaped chamber, containing a sample of the woman's fat tissue, under the chest skin. A blood vessel is then connected to the fat tissue allowing it to grow to fill the chamber within six to eight months.

The Melbourne-based Bernard O'Brien Institute of Microsurgery, which pioneered the procedure, said on Thursday that it hopes to develop a biodegradable chamber within 24 months, which would mean the chamber would dissolve once filled.

"We have tested it in several animal models so we have done enough testing preclinical to be confident now to take the step with human trials," said Dr Phillip Marzella, the institute's chief operating officer.

"We are starting what is called a prototype trial in the next three to six months -- a proof of principle trial with about five to six women just to demonstrate that the body can regrow its own fat supply in the breast," Marzella told local radio.

Marzella said the procedure relies on the body's own behaviour of filling internal voids, but a gel-like substance can also be injected to stimulate fat growth.

"Nature abhors a vacuum, so the chamber itself, because it is empty, it tends to be filled in by the body," he said.

The women in the trial have had a mastectomy or partial mastectomy, but there remains a defect or asymmetry issue with their breasts. The trial will not seek to grow a whole breast, but grow fat in the defected area to prove the procedure is viable, said an Institute report on the procedure.

The regenerative procedure could offer women an alternative to traditional breast reconstruction and implants following a mastectomy, Marzella said, adding the procedure could also be used to help restore other damaged body parts.

"We are hoping to move on to other organs using the same principle -- a chamber that protects and contains cells as they grow and as they restore their normal function," he said.

Australia's National Breast and Ovarian Cancer Centre said the new procedure, if successful, would be in an important step forward in dealing with breast cancer.

"It is a real exciting concept in terms of tissue engineering for women who have had a mastectomy," said Dr Helen Zorbas from the National Breast and Ovarian Cancer Centre.

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