NEW ORLEANS — The idea started years ago, when a young scientist saw a TV show with a celebrity going through a medical procedure.
He wanted to help just one breast cancer survivor have reconstruction after a mastectomy, that could make her whole, and natural looking.
We’ve followed that student's progress and now the very first woman to benefit from this breakthrough procedure, talks about this life-changing technology.
“I cried a lot in the bathroom. I just wanted to be me. I wanted to be a woman. I hated looking at myself in the mirror, but I still had hope no matter what. I wasn't giving up,” Cathy Mohr, 60, a breast cancer survivor said.
In the mid-90s Cathy Mohr got the most joyous news from her doctor, but it was soon followed by the most devastating news from another. She was expecting her first baby, but just three weeks after her girl came into the world, her doctor called.
“I was 32 years old. I had no idea. And we walk in there, and he's like, ‘You have breast cancer, and you need to get a mastectomy on both breasts.’ And I just sat there in shock.”
What followed was months of fighting for her life. At a time when all new moms are exhausted, Cathy was recovering from a mastectomy and on chemotherapy.
“I couldn't hold her in the beginning on my own, because that was, you know, I was cut, and so my mother-in-law would lay her in my arms. This is emotional, but I just kept pushing through because I knew I had to live, but I didn't know if I would because I knew nothing about cancer,” Mohr remembers through tears.
And for 29 years, Cathy has pushed through. There have been multiple breast surgeries, and failures, with reconstructions of implants, fat and skin from her abdomen, then later from her back. Then even later, from her buttocks area. There have been skin expanders, more implants, infections, and scar tissue problems. Nipples and areolas have been surgically created and tattooed.
“I had them tattooed on, 3D all of that. They were beautiful but I still wanted that, that texture and feeling,” she said.
What Cathy didn't know was one day a young, Ph.D. student in the Center for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine at Tulane, would end her quest to feel whole again. For the last decade, Dr. Nick Pashos was developing a way to give patients back a real nipple and areola. Medical Watch followed his years of hard work on this innovation, first in 2016.
“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,” Dr. Nick Pashos said, in 2016 as a Tulane doctoral student. He is now the Founder, Director, and CEO of BioAesthetics Corporation.
And we covered his progress in 2017 as the scientific community started to take notice.
“It feels great, and I would love to just see it on one person, help one person, and I think my entire Ph.D., how I've spent it on, would be worth it,” Dr. Pashos said in 2017 at Tulane.
What Dr. Pashos created is a breakthrough. Just as there are organ donors after death, a real nipple and areola can be harvested as well, or taken from mastectomy tissue. He then removes the living cells and DNA, and is left with a natural collagen and elastin graft, like scaffolding. That can sit on a shelf and later be stitched on top of a reconstructed breast, 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.
“He recognized that the techniques we had for reconstructing them were really insufficient, not adequate enough,” Dr. Scott Sullivan said. He is the co-founder of The Center for Restorative Breast Surgery and St. Charles Surgical Hospital.
At the center, doctors perform 1,300 breast surgeries a year. Women come from around the world for their expertise and ability to save their natural nipples and areolas when other major medical institutions can't. But for patients where that's not possible, there’s new hope. Dr. Pashos' innovation, called the NAC graft, has gone from an idea in the lab, to one of the very first patients in the country, Cathy.
“It's a simple procedure that takes 10 minutes in the clinic, and their body grows into it. So, this it looks just like a nipple, and it will become incorporated within about two to three weeks,” Dr. Sullivan said.
“I thought I was going to go to the hospital. He did this right in the office. It's amazing. It is freaking amazing what he gave me. The nurses were in there, they're like, ‘They're beautiful. They really are,’” Cathy remembers.
Dr. Sullivan is running one of the first clinical trials with the NAC graft.
When asked of all the technology, is this the most natural looking of anything that can be done? Dr. Sullivan replied, “It's the best by far, by far and away. This product really creates a very natural, lifelike result.”
He says patients have an emotional response to getting the graft.
“Oh they tear up. They can't believe it. Now they're starting to see themselves as they were.”
Patients will be able to choose grafts that give them the look they want. It's for women and men who have lost that tissue from cancer, a failed breast lift, or reduction surgery, even for skin reduction after major weight loss.
New Orleanian and Tulane biomedical engineering graduate, Billy Heim met Dr. Pashos in the developmental stages. This invention changed the course of his life.
“Yes. Yep. It's been a wild, wild and fun time for the past five years,” Billy Heim, now the COO of BioAesthetics Corporation said.
The two opened, and now run, BioAesthetics in North Carolina. Their goal is to transform lives with biomaterials and focus on quality of life products, like grafts for prolapsed pelvic organs, third degree burns, and pressure ulcers. Years ago, they hoped that one day, they could help just one patient. Now they have.
“Unbelievable. It's humbling, and, but also it makes all the hard work, and the late nights, and the trials and tribulations of the startup life, all that worth it to know the impact that it's making,” Heim said about Cathy’s emotional reaction to getting the graft.
Now at 60-years-old, with that baby girl now nearing 30-years-old, Cathy has the quality of life she waited three decades for.
“I pushed through it, and I was determined to do any and everything to keep fighting, and I won. And I'm still winning,” Mohr said.
Dr. Sullivan says the new graft should be available by the end of this year, or the beginning of next year.