The emerging field of 3-D printing is able to now create artificial human ears that look and act like real ears, researchers say.
The artificial ears could give hope to children born with ear deformities or people who have lost all or part of their ear in an accident or from cancer, said the Cornell University team.
Currently, many artificial ears are made with materials that have a Styrofoam-like feeling. Or surgeons can build ears from a patient's rib, but this is challenging and painful for children and the ears rarely look completely natural or perform well, according to the study authors.
The new process begins with a digitized 3-D image of a patient's ear, which is turned into a mold using a 3-D printer. A special gel that contains collagen is injected into the mold. The collagen serves as a scaffold upon which cartilage can grow.
The process is fast, according to co-lead author Lawrence Bonassar, an associate professor of biomedical engineering.
"It takes half a day to design the mold, a day or so to print it, 30 minutes to inject the gel, and we can remove the ear 15 minutes later. We trim the ear and then let it culture for several days in nourishing cell culture media before it is implanted," he explained in a university news release.
The artificial ears are practically identical to natural ears, according to the researchers.
Children born with a rare deformity called microtia -- poorly developed outer ears -- may be key beneficiaries of the new technology. Microtia occurs in anywhere from one to four in every 10,000 births, the researchers noted. These children have an intact inner ear but they suffer hearing loss due to an insufficient outer ear.
Study co-author Dr. Jason Spector, director of the Laboratory for Bioregenerative Medicine and Surgery and associate professor of plastic surgery at Weill Cornell in New York City, said the best time to implant a bioengineered ear would be around the age of 5 or 6, because the human ear is already at 80 percent of its adult size by then.
The study was published online Feb. 20 in the journal PLoS One.
If tests go well and prove the safety and effectiveness of the prosthetic, the first human implant of this new type of artificial ear could take place in as soon as three years, the Cornell team said.
SOURCE: Cornell University, news release, Feb. 20, 2013