Microtia is an ear deformity that occurs one in every 6000-12,000 births. Children born with Microtia have an underdeveloped external ear, called pinna, due to which their hearing is affected. Though the internal structure of the ear might be normal, the lack or the underdevelopment of the pinna, leads to hearing problems along with unusual looks. To correct the problem, surgeons used replacement pinna made from foam-like material that is implanted under the skin, though the replacement doesn’t look entirely natural, it does help in rectifying the hearing problem.
To better conditions for children born with Microtia and for patients who have lost part of all of their external ear in an accident or due to cancer, scientists at Cornell University have developed a more natural-looking pinna that is made using biological material and a 3D printer. To create the bioengineered pinna, the research team started by creating a digital model of a five-year-old girl’s fully developed external ear and then used a 3D printer to build a mold on that model.
The university researchers harvested collagen from rat tails that was combined with cartilage cells from cows’ ears to form a hydrogel which was then injected into the mold. The collagen then served as the scaffolding, upon with natural cartilage cells would grow and settle. Gizmag notes that the process is pretty fast too as it just takes half a day to design the mold, a day to print it and 30 minutes to inject the gel. Once complete, the printed ear can be removed just 15 minutes later. Once the ear is trimmed and cultured for several days, it can be implanted and after three months newly developed cartilage had replaced the collagen in the ears.
Before human trials, the scientists want to print the ears using human cells, preferably from the patient, to reduce the chances of rejection. The team states that the best time to implant the ear on a child would be when they are about 6 years old, as at that age ears are 80 percent of their adult size. The scientists are confident that it might possible to try the first human implant within three years.