US scientists have created an artificial ear using 3-D printing technology and living cells. The ear looks and behaves like a real ear and offers hope to children born with ear deformities. Sharon Reich has more.
NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK; ITHACA, NEW YORK UNITED STATES (REUTERS/CHARLES H. THORNE, M.D.) - It's an ear in the making, produced on a 3D printer by researchers at Cornell University.
It's designed to transform the lives of children born with microtia, a condition that leaves the external ear structure either deformed or missing altogether.
Created with living cells the artificial ear looks and behaves like the real thing.
Plastic surgeon Jason Spector of Weill Cornell Medical Center says the printed ears have obvious aesthetic benefits for children afflicted by microtia. But they could also limit the need for the painful surgery required to help the child hear normally.
"It is curently a very challenging defect to reconstruct. Requires taking tissue from a young child. Usually the surgery is done at the age of 5 or 6. The golen standard is to use a child's own tissue, which means taking piece of three of their own ribs, which as you can imagine is quite painful. In addition to the pain the actual reconstruction that can be made really depends on the artistic talents of the surgeon. Truthfully this is such a complicated and challenging surgery that there's maybe a handful of surgeons in the world who can make an acceptbale fascimille of an ear. And even in most talented hands, it's an ear made of cartiledge that comes from the ribs. And rib cartiledge is stiff cartiledge, nothing like your ear cartiledge which is pliable and flexible. So even if you were to make something that looks like an ear it really wouldn't behave like an ear because it's stiff and so no matter how well you carve it and put those pieces together it still never truly looks like an ear."
That's where Dr. Larry Bonassar comes in. Bonassar and his biomedical engineering team at Cornell have been working with Spector to develop a better ear replacement.
And with the printed ear, they think they've done it.
The researchers produced the ear by harvesting living cells
and suspending them in collagen, a principal protein in the body. After mixing the solution and dispensing it like ink into a 3-D printer, the ear printing process could begin.
To achieve the precise ear shape, technicians used 3D panoramic photographs and
laser scans capturing the geometry of the patient's other ear and then fed the data into a computer that translated it into a lifelike implant.
"The whole idea behind this is that we don't want to put artificial material into body. We want to replace ear cartiledge that is absent with new cartiledge. That's essentially what tissue engineering technology does. We place cells in the kinds of materials I described before, collagen and other materials and with time those cells essentially make new tissue. So cartiledge is composed of 10 percent of cartiledge is cells and the other 90 percent is water and the stuff that's around the cells. With time our implants start out as cells suspended in a gel and turn into cells suspended in tissue just like real cartiledge."
Although the printable ear hasn't been tested in humans, samples have been successfully implanted on the backs of laboratory rats.
The biggest technical challenge however, is generating the number of cells needed for the process. One implant requires 250 million cells.
"One of the nice things about this technology is that it doesn't care where the cells come from. We can mold or print cells of any type whether they are ear cells or stem cells from any source. And there's a possiblity of mixing them. It's really unclear what will be the perfect population for the ultimate clinical use, but the technology that we've developed will be able to interface with whatever cell technology is seen in the future."