The future of plastic surgery: from virtual breasts to 3D printed organs

  • How we became obsessed with plastic surgery
  • Using augmented reality to pick the perfect shape and size of your new breasts
  • Could 3D bioprinting reduce the need for human organ donors?
  • Using gene therapy to produce tissue, muscle and bone for reconstructive surgery
  • What else does the future of plastic surgery hold?

How many times have you heard someone complain about the way they look, about their ears being too big or their breasts being too small? People are very sensitive about their appearance and many do whatever they can to address these issues, as silly as they may seem to others. The solutions they revert to can be something as simple as applying makeup to more drastic measures like cosmetic or plastic surgery.

How we became obsessed with plastic surgery

Plastic surgery is particularly popular in the United States, with millions of procedures performed every year. Breast augmentation and liposuction are still among the most frequently performed, but some other less prominent procedures, such as labiaplasty and buttock augmentation, have been gaining popularity in recent years, thanks to technological advancements and changes in the public perception of beauty. Labiaplasty is the procedure to alter the labia minora or labia majora, the skin surrounding the female genitalia, which is something many women feel very self-conscious about, and the number of these procedures increased with almost 50% compared to last year.

The number of buttock augmentations, on the other hand, increased with almost 90%, influenced mostly by celebrities like Kim Kardashian. Scientific and technological breakthroughs enable us to keep introducing new procedures, many of which are now non-surgical. In fact, non-surgical procedures accounted for nearly 45% of all cosmetic procedures performed in 2015, on which Americans spent over $13 billion. This number will only keep growing and some people argue that, in the future, invasive surgical procedures will only be used in case of emergency. This will enable patients to choose less painful ways to improve their appearance while doctors will have fewer complications to deal with.

A doctor drawing lines on a woman’s stomach in preparation for plastic surgery
Plastic surgery is particularly popular in the United States, with millions of procedures performed every year.

Using augmented reality to pick the perfect shape and size of your new breasts

Gaming is not the only industry that benefits from augmented reality technology. The new Illusion software, for instance, allows women to see what their new breasts will look like before actually undergoing plastic surgery. The program works by overlaying 3D virtual images of breasts on top of the live images of the patient’s real body. The surgeon can manipulate the size and shape of the breasts in real time, while the patient can view their body from all angles to see how these different shapes and sizes would look. This helps the patients to make better informed decisions. For now, the software only works with breast augmentation procedures but the developers hope to apply the tech to other surgical procedures as well.

Could 3D bioprinting reduce the need for human organ donors?

3D printing is another technology that is now finding applications in the field of plastic surgery. A team of researchers led by Professor Yoon Won-soo at the Korea Polytechnic University, designed a 3D bioprinting system which uses biomaterials to produce various medical products. The team created a biodegradable net that can be used in bone reconstruction surgeries. A 3D-printed prosthesis from this material, inserted in place of the damaged bone, can eliminate the need to transplant bones from other parts of the body. This also significantly reduces the time needed to perform the surgery, from around eight to only two hours.

The research team also created a mixture from the biomaterials that dissolves in the human body, which makes it perfect for use in tissue regeneration. The material is called polycaprolactone (PCL) and it disappears from the body a couple of years after implantation. This method would prevent complications that often arise using conventional transplantation methods. The Korea Polytechnic University system is better than similar systems developed in other countries. It makes use of different kinds of biomaterials, which means it has more potential applications. The team hopes that one day their system will be able to produce entire human organs and tissues and eventually completely eliminate the need for human organ donors.

Using gene therapy to produce tissue, muscle and bone for reconstructive surgery

Plastic surgery is not only used for cosmetic purposes. There are people in real need of plastic surgery, such as those who have been in serious accidents and whose bodies have suffered extensive damage. For these people, reconstructive surgery through gene therapy is probably the best hope for having a relatively normal life. There is now a number of encouraging methods that grow skin, muscle, bone and other body tissues with the help of gene therapy.

The best thing about gene therapy is that it can be used to grow any kind of tissue that you need, which can then be used for treating numerous medical conditions, including diabetic skin ulcers and rheumatoid arthritis, the two conditions whose treatment has shown the most promise so far. Tendon repair, nerve regeneration and skin growth are just some of the additional avenues currently being explored by researchers. Burn victims, for example, are currently treated by transplanting healthy skin from other parts of the body, but this only works if a smaller area of the patient’s body is burned. Gene therapy would solve the biggest problem facing reconstructive surgery today – the donor tissue shortage – by allowing us to create all the tissue, muscle and bone we need.

What else does the future of plastic surgery hold?

The Centre of Excellence in Nanomedicine and Engineering in San Diego developed a new cosmetic procedure that involves injecting a small amount of gold nanoparticles under the skin and into the fatty tissue. The gold is heated by lasers and melts the fat, after which it is extracted. The advantage of this method over traditional liposuction is that there is no danger of surrounding nerves and tissues being damaged in the process.

A team made up of researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and MIT developed artificial skin from a silicone-based polymer which mimics some characteristics of the human skin, such as elasticity and adhesive strength, as well as penetration of light. It can be used to make a person look younger or to cover surface wounds. While some people are trying everything in their power to get rid of excess fat, others are doing the complete opposite. The process is called fat grafting and consists of adding fat back into certain parts of the body, particularly the face, which makes it look smoother and younger. By creating products from biomaterials that can repair the damage in the spinal cord, there is even hope that we will be able to make paralysed people walk again in the future.

In twenty to thirty years, personalised tissue engineering will enable us to grow biological structures such as skin and even organs in the lab, after which they can be implanted to restore form and function. We will also be more capable at controlling the immune system, which enables the transplantation of more complex structures, such as the face. Whether purely for cosmetic reasons or reconstructive purposes, more and more people are looking to plastic surgery for solutions. With the implementation of new technology such as gene therapy, 3D printing and augmented reality, the future of plastic and reconstructive surgery looks bright.

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