Imagine a fairly near future, when instead of using prosthetics for patients with missing or damaged ears, doctors can simply “print” one relatively quickly. Cornell University researchers have done just that, using a 3-D printer and an injection of living cells from cow cartilage.
3-D printing is frontier technology. Manufacturers already use these printers to lay down layers of materials to create parts or components. It’s called “additive” manufacturing, to differentiate it from traditional “subtractive” manufacturing in which factories essentially take a lump of raw materials and reduce them to create an object.
Study coauthors Dr. Jason Spector of Weill Cornell Medical Center, and Cornell biomedical engineer Lawrence Bonassar, say it’s a first step toward creating new, lifelike ears for individuals born without them. (The current process for creating a new biological ear for a patient involves removing cartilage from elsewhere and essentially “building” a new ear and doesn’t tend to look very lifelike.)
The scientists say the next step is to determine how to cultivate enough of a patient's remaining ear cartilage in the lab to grow an entirely new ear that could be implanted in the right spot, according to an Associated Press article.
The Cornell researchers used a 3-D camera designed to rotate around a child's head to create a picture of the existing ear. It sends this information into a computer that then sends information to a 3-D printer that creates a mold. The scientists then injected it full of a collagen gel rich with cow cells that produce cartilage. Over the next few months, the new cartilage cells grew in the shape of the mold. The process took about three months. The next step of the journey will involve trying the process with a patient’s own cartilage cells.
The research was published online in the journal PLoS One.
Edited by Braden Becker