How to print a human ear

Printing, implanting new ears may be just five years away

Topics: Surgery, Service Lines, Clinical Research, Clinical Technology

February 22, 2013

The ear's flexible but firm design makes it almost impossible to replicate with a prosthetic, but Cornell University scientists have used new 3-D printing technology to "print" artificial ears.

Experts say the regenerative technology holds promise for adults who have lost their ear in an accident and for children who are born with deformed ears.

To make the new ears:

  • Lawrence Bonassar and his colleagues used a 3-D camera to scan an image of a child's ear and determine its exact geometry. 
  • They then used a 3-D printer to create a soft mold of the ear and injected it with a "soup of collagen, living [cartilage] cells [from a cow], and culture medium," NPR's "Shots" writes. 
  • After culturing the mold for three months, the cartilage cells grew and replaced the collagen until the bioartificial organ resembled an ear in shape, flexibility, and strength.

According to the Associated Press, Bonassar's team can now speed up the process by using the living cartilage cells as the printers "ink," eliminating the need for an initial ear mold.

The new implants will need to be tested on larger animals before human trials can begin. In addition, researchers are "still identifying what the perfect cell source is for these implants," Bonassar says. 

Regardless, Bonassar says that, "with any luck," the full procedure is just five years away (Neergaard, AP/USA Today, 2/20; Shute, "Shots," NPR, 2/20; Preidt, HealthDay, 2/20). 

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