3D Printable Ears: Can You Hear Me Now?
February 21, 2013

3D Printable Ears: Can You Hear Me Now?

Michael Harper for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

It´s hard not to see 3D printing as the beginning of a bright new future. The ability to print real, 3D objects from a desktop device is a powerful new force in the way companies deliver products to customers and inventors bring their designs to life. Now, a team of bioengineers and physicians have developed a way to create a real-live human ear with a 3D printer. This ear not only resembles an actual human ear, it´s printed with living cells, making the ear an actual living thing. The team said they wanted to create this ear to help the thousands of children who are born each year with the deformity known as microtia.

While the ear has yet to be used on humans, the fact this team has been able to generate an ear made of living cartilage cells is a feat in and of itself. The team has had their methods and research published in the online version of PLoS ONE.

As they developed this ear, Lawrence Bonassar, associate professor of biomedical engineering at Cornell Medical College successfully created injectable and moldable gels that contained living cells. These gels were then distributed through a 3D printer and, three months later, generated enough cartilage to replace the collagen which was used to hold the mold´s shape.

“This is such a win-win for both medicine and basic science, demonstrating what we can achieve when we work together,” said Bonassar, the lead author of this research, in a statement.

To create the ears, Bonassar used a scanner to take 3D images of his twin daughters´ ears. The team was then able to feed this scan into a 3D printer and build a plastic mold of them.

Next, a Jello-like mixture of collagen, culture medium and living cells are injected into this plastic mold.

"All this happens quickly. You inject the mold, and in 15 minutes you have an ear ready to go,” explained Bonassar, speaking to NPR.

It takes a little longer than 15 minutes to generate an ear, of course. The mold is left to culture for several days, giving the cells ample time to regenerate and turn into cartilage.

Once the 3D printed ear is pulled from the mold, it will be up to a plastic surgeon to implant this new organ on a patient, slipping it underneath the skin on the side of the head in hopes the body will accept the transplant.

This is why using real cells is an important aspect of these new printable ears. According to Bonassar, the body will be more likely to receive the printable ear because it is, by all means, a real human ear.

Bonassar and team have successfully developed a method to create these ears, but they´re still in search of the perfect type of material to use in generating them.

“We're still identifying what the perfect cell source is for these implants,” said Bonassar. He further explained his team has looked into human ear cartilage, stem cells, and cells from a persons fat or bone marrow.

The study´s co-author, Dr. Jason Spector, says young children around age five will be the best candidates for a new ear, assuming the cells in the ear continue to grow along with the body.

“We don´t know yet if the bioengineered ears would continue to grow to their full size, but I suspect they will,” said Dr. Spector.

Should all go according to plan, Bonassar and Spector say the first printable ear could be implanted in a human in as few as three years.