NEW ORLEANS -- A young man had an idea one night while watching a documentary in which a woman was being told what would happen during a mastectomy and reconstruction. He wondered if there could be a skin graft that would make her look completely natural again.
Now for the first time he is showing his invention that has doctors talking. 28-year-old Nicholas Pashos, who is still working on getting his doctorate in bio-innovation, could change the lives of women and men who lose the nipple and areola from a mastectomy after breast cancer.
"There are 2.8 million breast cancer survivors living in the United States, so this is a huge community and I think that hopefully, I can help out at some point," said Pashos, who works in the Center for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine at Tulane Medical School.
Pashos has been working for a few years and has come up with a way to give patients a real nipple and areola.
"It takes me 10 days to process it, so in 10 days I can send it to a plastic surgeon," he said.
Like organ donations after death, this can be donated, or it can be taken from and used on the woman having a mastectomy to prevent cancer. He then removes all the living cells, including the pigment cells. This is why the pink or darker color is gone in the transplants. What is left is the collagen and elastin, the protein scaffolding that your skin is made of, that is still in the exact shape as nature made it. Then a plastic surgeon could take it off of the shelf, and sew it on the breast reconstruction mound, no matter how long ago the mastectomy was. Then your own cells, blood vessels and maybe, in some people, nerves would grow through it making it your own.
"It was no rejection at all. You don't have to take immunosuppressants. This is like a personalized transplant," said Pashos.
He is hoping that this type of skin grafting will be ready to use on patients in two and a half years. Plastic surgeons now use pink tattooing and other skin to simulate that part of the breast, but this is a game changer.
"This is such an exciting prospect for plastic surgery to be able to use a real nipple to make a nipple because breast skin is not the same as a nipple," explained Dr. Abigail Chaffin, Associate Professor of Plastic Surgery at Tulane. "It looks, it's the suggestion of a nipple but it's not as realistic for patients and doesn't maintain its shape as well. So to have that, have patients back to feeling whole and having as natural a breast as possible, is a huge advancement." Chaffin performs breast reconstructions at Tulane Lakeside Hospital in Metairie.
The Tulane scientists are now working on how to return the pigment cells to the grafted skin for a realistic color.