Hearing management

30 January 2018

Ears grown for children in groundbreaking procedure

Scientists have used a remarkable combination of 3D printing and cell culturing to create new ears for five children born with ear defects, the first time the procedure has been performed on human patients.

On 29 January 2018 CNN reported that researchers had grown human ears through a combination of 3D printing and cell growth. These ears were transplanted onto five children who suffered from a defect causing one of their ears to be malformed.

Microtia is a congenital condition that causes the external ear not to develop fully. Although children born with the deformity often have an intact inner ear, they lose hearing due to the missing external structure. This is because the outer ear structure is vital for receiving soundwaves and redirecting them to the ear drum through the ear canal. 

According to the Stanford Ear Institute, microtia occurs in one out of 5 000 births, but the statistics can vary depending on ethnic background.

How does it work?

Lawrence Bonassar, a professor of biomedical engineering at Cornell University, says that the creation of shaped cartilage to treat microtia has been a goal for more than two decades.

This most recent study, published in the journal EBioMedicine, entailed the combination of tissue engineering from collected cartilage cells and 3D-printing to create a human ear.

In a previous study by the same researchers, published in the PLOS ONE journal, it was stated that the flexible ears grew cartilage over three months to replace the collagen used to mould them. Three months was the time it took for the cells to develop. 

Although the research of growing tissue is certainly not new, it’s the first time that it was performed on human patients. Follow-ups also yielded solid results, making the biomechanics of human ears a clinical possibility instead of merely research.

According to the study, four of the five children showed significant cartilage formation after the procedure. In three of the patients, the new ear matched the normal ear in size and shape. All five ears stayed intact after the procedure and only two of the patients showed slight distortion.

Is a thing of the future?

For the scientists, this treatment method is a big breakthrough even though there are limitations.

According to one of the researchers, there is always the possibility of cells going haywire when they are cultured from another person's body. Therefore more research is needed before this method is widely used.

Want to find out more about the procedure? Watch the informative video below. 

Image credit: iStock


Ask the Expert

Hearing Expert

Minette Lister graduated with a Bachelor of Communication Pathology (Audiology) from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Westville in 2015. Thereafter, she completed her compulsory year of community service at Phoenix Assessment and Therapy Centre in Durban. In 2017, Minette started working for Thompson and Hoffman Audiology Inc. She is passionate about working with children and adults to diagnose and manage hearing loss using state of the art technology. Minette offers hearing screening programmes for newborn and high-risk babies, as well as school-aged children, in order to decrease the incidence of late or unidentified hearing loss.

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