Ears In the Age of 3-D

Imagine, if you would, please, saying the following to your five year-old twin daughters: “I want to implant your ears on the backs of rats.”

Okay, that’s not nearly so creepy as it sounds. Nancy Shute of NPR explains:

3-D Printed EarTo make the ear, Bonassar and his colleagues scanned the ears of his twin daughters, who were 5 at the time. They used a 3-D printer to build a plastic mold based on the scan. Those printers, similar to a home inkjet, lately have also been adapted to experiment with making chocolate, guns, and even kidneys.

They then injected a soup of collagen, living cartilage cells, and culture medium. The soup congeals “like Jell-O,” Bonassar tells Shots. “All this happens quickly. You inject the mold, and in 15 minutes you have an ear ready to go.”

Well, not exactly. What they have is an ear-shaped chunk of cells that would have to be tucked under the skin on the side of the head by a plastic surgeon before it could become an ear.

To test whether their ear-mold would become living, useful ear cartilage, the researchers implanted samples under the skin on the back of laboratory rats. In three months, cartilage cells took over the collagen, making for a solid-yet-flexible chunk of cartilage that retained its precise shape and size. The results were published online in the journal PLoS One.

The technique could be a breakthrough for microtia and anotia, related birth defects in which the pinna (the part of the ear on the outside of one’s head) is underdeveloped or absent, or even the occasional missing ear resulting from an accident. Microtia occurs in the range of once every eight- to ten-thousand births, and, in truth, I have no idea what the numbers are for accidental or necessary surgical removal of pinnae.

Still, though, as with so many breakthroughs we hear about, application is most likely ten years away at a minimum.

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