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Another Use for Breasts: Medical Experiments

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A fascinating, if wonky, story in this month’s Wired looks at an unexpected side benefit that breast enhancement may have wrought. It turns out that boobs, apart from being a source of nourishment for the young and a good way to sell magazines (a feature of which Wired took full advantage), are a useful organ to test out new medical practices. Because, for all the attention they get, they don’t actually do much.

Chris Calhoun, the CEO of biotech company Cytori Therapeutics, says his firm has figured out a way to augment breasts using stem cell–enriched fat tissue (another part of our body we thought was kind of useless). Cytori has successfully injected the altered fatty tissue into the breasts of women who have had lumpectomies or mastectomies and enabled them to grow breast tissue back again. The company believes the same technology can be used to regenerate other damaged tissue, perhaps in the heart, kidneys or bones. The implications of this are, to say the least, mammoth. As the story says:

…based on almost a decade of trials that Cytori and its academic partners have performed on cell cultures, lab rodents, and now humans, they believe their engineered flab cells can treat more organs than you find in a French butcher shop.

Breast augmentation is now the country’s most popular cosmetic surgery, worth almost a billion dollars a year. It’s not all porn stars and trophy wives either. More women are surviving breast cancer treatment, which usually includes a mastectomy or lumpectomy, and are seeking reconstruction. And younger women who carry the so-called breast-cancer gene (BRCA-1 or BRCA-2) are opting for pre-emptive mastectomies. (More on Time.com: Mammogram Guidelines and What You Need to Know)

So there’s a market for breast implants. The current options — usually saline or silicone —  have proved to be less than satisfactory. That’s why Marc Hedrick, a plastic surgeon and a former professor of surgery at UCLA, and Min Zhu, a medical postdoctoral student who works for him, came up with a third option, one which ends up feeling more like a real breast. “It’s not a substitute for implants for women who want to look, um, unnaturally large,” Hedrick tells Wired. “You can’t take a flat-chested woman and make her look like a dancer at a strip club. We’re not targeting that market. If they don’t care about looking natural, let them do silicone.” Realizing what they had come up with could have much wider implications, they brought in Calhoun, the business guy.

But one of the big problems with new medical technologies is how to test them. You can’t really mess about too much with organs that people need to live. But while experts agree that everybody needs a bosom for a pillow now and then, women can have many productive years on the planet without bazungas, so human trials could be started more quickly. Using breasts, Cytori Therapeutics may have found a way to nurse another medical breakthrough into the world.

More on Time.com:

It Had to Happen: Breasts in 3D

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