Hearing management

21 February 2013

Lifelike ears created with 3D printing

Researchers said Wednesday they had engineered artificial human ears that look and act like the real thing thanks to 3D printing, giving hope to patients missing all or part of their ears.


Researchers said Wednesday they had engineered artificial human ears that look and act like the real thing thanks to 3D printing, giving hope to patients missing all or part of their ears.

The new ears, practically identical to human ones, could provide the solution long sought by reconstructive surgeons to treat thousands of children born with the congenital deformity microtia, along with those who suffered ear loss to cancer or in an accident.

In a study published online in the PLOS ONE journal, Cornell biomedical engineers and Weill Cornell Medical College physicians said the flexible ears grew cartilage over three months to replace the collagen used to mold them.

How the study was done

"This is such a win-win for both medicine and basic science, demonstrating what we can achieve when we work together," said co-lead author Lawrence Bonassar, associate professor of biomedical engineering at Cornell.

Bonassar and his colleagues first constructed the ears with a digitized 3D image of a person's ear that served to build a mold of a solid ear using a 3D printer.

A high-density, injectable gel made of living cells helped fill the mold. Once the mold removed, cartilage was grown on the collagen.

And researchers praised the speed of the process, noting it takes half a day to build the mold, about a day to print it, 30 minutes to inject the gel and the ear can be removed just 15 minutes later.

"We trim the ear and then let it culture for several days in nourishing cell culture media before it is implanted," Bonassar said in a statement.

Microtia, when the external ear is not fully developed, occurs in about 1 to four per 10 000 births each year in the United States.

Although children born with the deformity often have an intact inner ear, they lose hearing due to the missing external structure.

Weill Cornell associate professor Jason Spector noted that physicians could reduce the chances of rejection by using human cells from the same patient to build the ear.

Preferred time for implant

The best time to implant a bioengineered ear on a child would be around the age of five or six, when ears are at about 80 percent of their adult size.

Spector predicted that researchers could try the first human implant of a Cornell bioengineered ear in as little as three years.

Replacement ears are usually built using materials with a foam-like consistency, or using a patient's harvest rib. But the process is often painful, especially for children, as the ears rarely look natural or perform well.



Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Ask the Expert

Hearing Expert

Francis Slabber is a Speech & Language Therapist and Audiologist who has owned and run The Hearing Clinic in Wynberg, Cape Town for the last 17 years. Francis and her team have extensive experience in fitting and supplying hearing aids as well as assistive living devices. Francis has served as the Western Cape Chairperson for the South African Association of Audiologists for three years and has given many talks on the topic of hearing loss and amplification. The Hearing Clinic has a special interest in adult and geriatric hearing impairment, hearing aid fittings and hearing rehabilitation.

Still have a question?

Get free advice from our panel of experts

The information provided does not constitute a diagnosis of your condition. You should consult a medical practitioner or other appropriate health care professional for a physical exmanication, diagnosis and formal advice. Health24 and the expert accept no responsibility or liability for any damage or personal harm you may suffer resulting from making use of this content.

* You must accept our condition

Forum Rules