Ears and noses could be grown in a laboratory and transplanted into humans using a technique developed by British scientists.
Researchers from Great Ormond Street Hospital and University College London using tissue engineering have become the first to turn stem cells from body fat in the abdomen of children into living cartilage.
This revolutionary procedure could help young patients born with debilitating facial abnormalities such as "microtia", in which the outer ear is underdeveloped, or those who require reconstructive surgery after an accident.
Experts believe it could be used in many other types of transplant surgery to reduce the risk of the body rejecting a replacement organ.
Currently, when facial features of children with severe birth defects need to be rebuilt, surgeons have to take cartilage from other parts of the body, such as the ribs, which is an invasive and painful procedure. Then they fashion the shape of a nose or an ear by hand, before placing this "scaffold" under the skin.
Doctors using the new technique would simply be able to "grow" a new ear or nose that would be biologically indistinguishable from the real thing.
To achieve the breakthrough, researchers combined stem cells from a child's abdominal fat with a polymer "nano-scaffold" - almost a microscopic netting.
They manipulated this composite in a laboratory so that human cartilage tissue grew into the tiny holes within the polymer.
A paper on the new technique has been published in the journal Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology and Medicine.
Neil Bulstrode, consultant plastic surgeon at Great Ormond Street Hospital, one of the authors of the research, said: "It is such an exciting prospect. If we could produce a block of cartilage using stem cells and tissue engineering, this would be the holy grail for our field."