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What Is Autologous Reconstruction?

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  • Written By: Jillian O Keeffe
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 24 November 2016
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Autologous reconstruction is a type of plastic surgery, commonly used to help women who have had to have breast tissue removed due to cancer. The technique involves using tissue from elsewhere in the body to act as material for reconstructing the affected part of the body. Advantages of autologous reconstruction over reconstruction using artificial materials include a natural feeling and look to the reconstructed area.

In medicine, when a technique is autologous, it means that it involves transferring some cells or tissue from one area of the body to another. As these materials are recognized by the body as belonging to the body, rejection of the graft does not occur, as it can with transplants of foreign material. Reconstructive surgeons take advantage of this fact to alter the appearance of damaged, or underdeveloped parts of the body.

Breast cancer patients are a common group which can receive autologous reconstruction, as women who undergo surgical removal of tumors commonly have visibly altered breasts. When the area that requires reconstruction is deliberately altered by surgery, such as in the case of breast cancer, the surgeons can take into account the potential for reconstruction when performing the surgery. Another type of patient who may opt for autologous reconstruction are people with structural problems of the ear, which can be a result of injury or of underdevelopment in the womb.

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Historically, tumors in the breast were removed along with surrounding tissue and much of the skin. At the beginning of the 21st century, however, scientists noted that more skin and breast tissue could be left in place without increasing the risk of the cancer returning, compared to a more comprehensive removal. This is an advantage when it comes to cosmetic reconstruction of the breast, and often, surgeons are able to leave a skin flap with which to cover the breast once it has been reconstructed.

Filling in the missing structure of the affected breast requires extra tissue from elsewhere in the body. Examples include tissue from the abdominal area, the buttocks or the back, to replace the fatty tissue lost during the tumor removal surgery. The surgeon moves this tissue to the breast area, and then covers it over with the remaining skin to form an approximation of a normal breast.

Fatty tissue is not the only material that can be used in autologous reconstruction. If a person has a damaged ear, for example, the addition of cartilage can act as structural material to make a normal-looking ear. This cartilage is commonly taken from the ribs, and then covered over with skin from the ear area. Procedures like these can be performed in one operation, or they may take several operations.

An alternative to autologous reconstruction is the placement of artificial materials in the body. An example is a breast implant, which can be made from substances like silicone. Advantages of natural autologous procedures over artificial techniques include a more natural appearance, a more natural feel and a reduced chance of complications due to rejection of the tissue. On the other hand, the procedures involve surgery at two or more sites of the body, and can cause scarring at these areas.

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