Injections of fat or Botox are already commonplace in plastic surgery practices. But a new technique may revolutionize the field with a different type of injectable: cartilage. According to a Chinese news wire, scientists in that country have made a breakthrough that will allow doctors to repair human tissue using cartilage grown from a patient’s own cells. This same team was the first to graft an ear grown in a laboratory onto a patient. Now they’ve come up with a regeneration technique that could alleviate all the side effects caused by the current dermatological filler of choice, which is hyaluronic acid. Here’s how the team employed 3-D printing and some other space-age science to come up with injectible cartilage:

The limits of hyaluronic acid

A handful of dermal fillers are already popular, most notably injectable hyaluronic acid. It has been dubbed “a celebrity of A-list skincare.” It occurs naturally in the body and is manufactured under at least nine brand names, including Captique, Hylaform and Perlane. Many products involving hyaluronic acid are applied topically for benefits like hydration. But the injectable version plumps facial contours and make depressions less noticeable. It works to improve acne scars, frown lines and scars from wounds and burns, for example, and has numerous other applications. This injectable comes from the body and occurs in especially high concentrations in soft connective tissues and the fluid that surrounds human eyes. Scientists extract it, reformulate it and then inject it into facial areas.

The positives of using hyaluronic acid via an injectable route also come with potential side effects. The more common ones are muscle stiffness and joint pain, and less common include joint swelling or redness or bleeding, burning or discoloration. That’s why this new idea of injecting cartilage instead is so revolutionary. The Chinese team has stated that it doesn’t expect side effects since the body is unlikely to reject cartilage grown from its own cells.

Revolutionary injectable cartilage

The Chinese team that developed injectable cartilage for tissue repair had its first hit with a human ear graft. They used in vitro tissue engineering to create cartilage shaped like an individual patient’s ear. They successfully grafted them onto children with a congenital external ear malformation known as microtia in a successful clinical trial.

This newest innovation also focuses on improving appearance using cartilage grown from a person’s own cells. This time, the Chinese scientists removed a bit of cartilage from behind the ear and then used it to grow seed cells in the laboratory. They filled biodegradable 3-D print molds as the cartilage cells became available. These cells could be injected directly into people seeking to improve the appearance of lines, scars, wounds and other problematic facial contours. One of the key benefits of the process is that it’s minimally invasive. Unlike current injectables used to fill facial contours, cells that are grown from a person’s own ear cartilage “can be injected into a patient’s body parts like the nose and chin,” Professor Cao Yilin, director of China’s National Tissue Engineering Research Center told Ecns wire. There, they’ll keep growing, eventually developing into “normal tissue, a minimally invasive treatment similar to natural growth,” according to Yilin. Another key advantage: Since the cells come from the patient, there’s less chance of them being rejected or causing allergic reactions.

Injectable cartilage already has shown its value in clinical applications, but the new technique won’t be limited to cosmetic or plastic surgery. The researchers expect to extend the applications to include other surgeries and even organ reconstruction. It’s so revolutionary that future bionics may do away with the concept of “we can rebuild you” in favor of “we can use your own cells to repair you.”