As I write, there’s a lot of fuss over the firing of the world’s first 3-D printed gun. Over 100,000 people have downloaded the blueprint used to make it.
But there’s another significant 3-D story that isn’t getting the press it deserves. So let’s step away from the gun range and correct that…
Scientists at Cornell University have used 3-D printing technology to create an artificial ear using living cells.
It’s not some clumsy innovation, either. Because it’s created with living cells, it looks and performs like a real ear and is a real breakthrough for children born with external ear deformities.
That’s because aside from the aesthetic benefits that a properly formed ear has, it also avoids the need for young kids to undergo painful, unpredictable surgery.
As plastic surgeon Jason Spector at the Cornell Medical Center explains: “It’s currently a very challenging defect to reconstruct. It requires taking a child’s own tissue, which means taking a piece of their own ribs. In addition to the pain… it’s such a complicated and challenging surgery that there’s maybe a handful of surgeons in the world who can make an acceptable facsimile of an ear. And even in the most talented hands, it’s an ear made of cartilage that comes from the ribs. Rib cartilage is stiff, nothing like your ear cartilage, which is pliable and flexible. So even if you make something that looks like an ear, it wouldn’t behave like an ear.”
So Spector has worked with Cornell’s bioengineering team to create a better ear replacement. And 3-D printing has helped them do it.
Dr. Larry Bonassar says the goal behind the tissue engineering is not to put anything artificial into the body: “We want to replace ear cartilage that is absent… We place cells in collagen and other materials and with time, those cells essentially make new tissue. Our implants start out as cells suspended in a gel and turn into cells suspended in tissue just like real cartilage.”
The video below shows how the team created the ear…
While the ear has been successfully implanted on lab rats, the challenge for the team is to find the 250 million cells needed for each implant procedure.
Fortunately, cells can be harvested from anywhere. And the process is versatile enough to work with other cell technologies, too.
As for 3-D printing, while it’s still a young and imperfect technology, working with other fields to make important medical breakthroughs like this prove that the industry is making steady progress, with life-changing potential.
Ahead of the tape,