Researchers in London, UK, are investigating the effectiveness of stem cell therapies for facial reconstruction.
A joint team, from London's Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children and University College London's Institute of Child Health, has published the findings of their research in the journal Nanomedicine.
This follows the recent news that another UK-based team, of The London Chest Hospital, has begun the largest ever trial of adult stem cells in heart attack patients.
Great Ormond Street has a proven track record in facial reconstruction, particularly with regard to treating children with a missing or malformed ear - a condition called microtia. This kind of reconstructive surgery involves taking cartilage from the patient's ribs to craft a "scaffold" for an ear, which is then implanted beneath the skin.
Despite successes with this method, the researchers thought the treatment may be improved by bringing stem cells into the process.
Growing cartilage using stem cells taken from the patient's fat
To do this, the doctors would take a small sample of fat from the patient and extract stem cells from it. The stem cells would then be placed onto a special ear-shaped scaffold, called a "POSS-PCU nanoscaffold."
Using human stem cells from the patient's own fat, researchers say they may be able to improve the effectiveness of facial reconstruction.
The cells are treated with chemicals that encourage them to transform into cartilage cells, before being inserted under the patient's skin.
This new version of the technique reduces side effects and the chance of the new ear being rejected by the patient's body. It also makes the treatment less invasive, as cartilage taken from the patient's rib to build a scaffold does not grow back.
One of the study's authors, Dr. Patrizia Ferretti, told the BBC: "It is really exciting to have the sort of cells that are not tumorogenic, that can go back into the same patient - so we don't have the problem of immunosuppression - and can do the job you want them to do."
So far, the researchers have been able to create cartilage on the scaffold using stem cells, but more safety testing is required before the procedure can be tested in patients.
As well as using this kind of stem cell therapy to grow new ears, the researchers believe the same procedure could be used to create noses and tracheal transplants.
Another benefit of generating body parts using stem cells would be that the new body part will grow as the child grows.
Neil Bulstrode, consultant plastic surgeon at Great Ormond Street and an author on the paper, says:
"It is such an exciting prospect with regard to the future treatment of these patients and many more. Currently I take the rib cartilage from the chest to make an ear, but if we could produce a block of cartilage using stem cells and tissue engineering, this would be the Holy Grail for our field."
Medical News Today also reported recently on research into growing artificial heart valves for children using stem cells.