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Artificial Ears with Living Cells Created by 3D Printing

Lawrence Bonassar holds an artificial ear made with 3D printing and injectable molds. (Lindsay France, Cornell University)

Lawrence Bonassar holds an artificial ear made with 3D printing and injectable molds. (Lindsay France, Cornell University)

Biomedical engineers and physicians at Cornell University in New York developed a process to create artificial human ears from animal cells that resembles real ears, and offers a form on which live cartilage cells can grow. The Cornell researchers published their findings yesterday in the online journal PLoS One.

The team led by Jason Spector, professor of plastic surgery at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City and Lawrence Bonassar, associate professor of biomedical engineering in Ithaca say their artificial ear improves on current replacement ears that have a consistency like styrofoam, or those built from skeletal tissue surgically removed from patients. The authors say their the new artificial ear can help children born with deformed ears from a congential condition known as microtia, as well as ears damaged from accidents or cancer.

The process of making the replacement ear combines tissue engineering with three-dimensional printing and injectable molds. The Cornell team starts by creating a digitized 3D image of the individual’s ear, which is formed into a digitized solid ear with a 3D  printer to create a mold. The mold is then injected with collagen, derived from tails of rats, combined with some 250 million cartilage cells taken from cow ears.

The collagen forms a type of scaffold on which live ear cartilage can grow. In the Cornell study, the ear cartilage took about three months to grow and replace the collagen in ears implanted on lab rats. The new ears grew to about the desired size in that time and exhibited mechanical properties similar to the original native cow ear cartilage.

Engineering replacement parts made from cartilage is advancing because cartilage does not need a separate blood supply to survive. Nonetheless, applying the technology to human ears would probably require first growing human ear cartilage cells in the lab for the mold, instead of cow cartilage. “Using human cells, specifically those from the same patient, would reduce any possibility of rejection,” says Spector.

Spector adds that the best time to implant a bioengineered ear on children would be when they are about 5 or 6 years old, when a child’s ears are 80 percent of their adult size. He says if future safety and efficacy tests work out, it might be possible to try the first human implant of a Cornell bioengineered ear in three years.

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