Ear cells could be used in facial reconstruction

22 August 2011

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Category: Research & medical benefits

ear–diagram.jpgTissue grown from stem cells taken from patients' ears could be used in facial reconstructions, tests in mice have shown. The cells have been used to grow cartilage, giving surgeons an alternative to the synthetic materials they currently use.

Surgeons use synthetic materials instead of natural cartilage to reconstruct facial features after injuries or birth abnormalities. Until now scientists have been unable to grow normal cartilage from stem cells for use in surgery. Scientists have tried using different types of stem cells but the cartilage formed lacked important characteristics, such as elasticity, that allow it to behave normally under the skin. In a new breakthrough, scientists have found stems cells in the ear that are able to differentiate into normal elastic cartilage.

Researchers isolated the stem cells from within the ears of patients using minor surgery. These stem cells were used to grow elastic cartilage in the laboratory. When injected into mice the cells formed tissue containing cartilage and, crucially, a source of fresh cells allowing the tissue to renew itself.

The researchers believe that these stem cells could help children with facial abnormalities, as the implanted cartilage will continue to grow throughout the patient's life. Tests in mice also showed that the cells did not turn cancerous, a common problem with some stem cells.