For the video of this story please click here.
Valerie Schwarzwaelder will never forget that day when her battle with cancer would take an intimate piece of her.
“I just remember sitting in my bed with my cap on at that moment saying I don’t want to do this because I was scared,” she says.
Twenty minutes before she went into surgery for a double mastectomy she took a picture for her father. Valerie says she had her I don’t want to do this face on.
“I was trying to smile for my dad, he was taking the picture, but I couldn’t,” Valerie said. “I wanted to hop off that bed and run.”
When Valerie woke up from surgery she says it was like part of her identity, her sexuality was cut out of her and she didn’t know if she’d get it back.
“I remember waking up and them taking off the bandages and seeing what I looked like and I cried for weeks because they were gone,” she says.
Valerie’s breast reconstruction took months, but a woman’s journey to become whole again is about to radically change thanks to a 3D printer.
“We did start with a simple ink jet printer,” said Laura Bosworth who is the CEO and Co-Founder of TeVido BioDevices.
But there is nothing simple about what that printer is producing. TeVido BioDevices is using a woman’s cells to print breast tissue.
“Our first product would be for rebuilding the nipple,” said Bosworth.
The lab is at the University of Texas El Paso. Bosworth says they started out with a modified HP Deskjet printer and instead of filling the cartridges with ink they injected them with biomaterial and printed out skin.
“We have a combination of living cells and ingredients that we use inside these cartridges and layer by layer we build up either the nipple or lumpectomy void to match what is what you need and what you are missing,” Bosworth said.
“We would be able to use a woman’s own cells and match whatever she has existing and create something that would be more permanent.”
Plastic surgeon Dr. Ned Snyder says it has the promise to be a game changer for breast reconstruction.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Snyder said. “They’re going to print a nipple and areola that basically goes on as a single phase but secondly the outcomes are going to be significantly improved.”
And, unlike skin flaps and tattoos the entire look and feel of the breast will be more natural. “It’s going to be much more lifelike,” said Dr. Snyder. “They’re going to be able to mimic pigments from the other nipple and it’s going to be real skin.”
Dr. Snyder says as the technology improves they’ll be doing 3D printing of entire breasts.
Valerie’s hopes the technology is tweaked tested and approved when it comes time to replacing her implants in about ten years. TeVido BioDevices say it will be doing clinical trials over the next two years and hope to be using this 3D printed breast tissue for surgeries in the next three to five years.
Valerie’s journey through breast reconstruction was not easy but she smiles in pictures again. One of her favorite pictures after she was whole again was when she completed a 5K mud run.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever done a 5k run,” Valerie said.
Now after beating breast cancer Valerie says she smiles with her I made it face.
“I was so happy after finishing it. I just felt so good,” she says.
By Walt Maciborski