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Originally published March 11 2013

Researchers use 3D printer to grow a functioning human ear

by David Gutierrez, staff writer

(NaturalNews) Scientists from Cornell University have produced the most effective and authentic artificial human ear to date, using a combination of 3-D printing technology and an injectable molds, according to a paper published in the journal PLOS One.

"This is such a win-win for both medicine and basic science, demonstrating what we can achieve when we work together," co-lead author Lawrence Bonassar said.

The researchers began using a laser scanner and high-definition camera to take 3D photographs of the ears of twin sisters. This phase took only 30 seconds.

The photograph was then fed into a Stratasys FDM 2000 3D printer, which produced a mold. The researchers injected the mold with special gel that they had developed made of animal collagen (a structural protein). This collagen provided a "scaffold" for growing the actual ear. The researchers injected the collagen with 250 million cartilage cells. The cells immediately started to proliferate along the collagen scaffold.

"It takes half a day to design the mold, a day or so to print it, 30 minutes to inject the gel, and we can remove the ear 15 minutes later," Bonassar said. "We trim the ear and then let it culture for several days in nourishing cell culture media before it is implanted."

Within three months of the initial photograph, the cartilage had completely replaced the collagen, leaving an ear made entirely of cartilage, just like those naturally found on the human head.

The researchers found that the artificial ear was nearly identical to a human ear in both shape and function.

"Using human cells, specifically those from the same patient, would reduce any possibility of rejection," co-lead author Dr. Jason Spector said.

Frontiers of regeneration research

3D printing is already being used in other medical applications, such as the "while you wait" manufacture of crowns and replacement jaws. 3D printers are also being used to quickly and inexpensively create bone models for practice surgeries.

Technology is not yet at a place where the printer can directly output living cells. However, Bonassar and Spector's mold design allows a way around that limitation. So far, the researchers have focused on growing body parts made primarily of cartilage - such as ears, joints or the nose - because they do not require a blood supply to stay alive.

The researchers hope to be able to test the first implanted ear within three years. If successful, the ears would be immediately helpful to children with microtia, a congenital defect resulting in an imperfectly formed outer ear. Such children typically have perfectly healthy inner ears, and suffer impaired hearing only because of the lack of the outer structure.

"A bioengineered ear replacement like this would also help individuals who have lost part or all of their external ear in an accident or from cancer," Spector said.

The new technique should be far superior to current ones, which either use artificial materials and result in ears with consistencies like Styrofoam, or require painful surgery to harvest rib tissue that is then used to sculpt an ear that still does not look natural or perform particularly well.


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