Friday, February 22, 2013

Engineers make functional human ears with 3D printer

3D printers have rapidly gained interest from both scientists as well as the general public. Hailed as machines that can make everything, they are especially of interest to researchers in the field of regenerative medicine. Because 3D printers are capable of printing biological material as well, it is possible to create artificial tissues and organs in the lab, and use those for transplantation. In a recent study, scientists from the Cornell University managed to print a complete human ear.

Their technology is based on a 3D printer that uses a certain kind of hydrogel to print an ear-shaped thing based on a 3D image developed on a computer. After the ear has been printed, it is used as a mold for biological material. First, the scientists injected collagen, which in the body is mainly used for stability. Consequently, around 250 million cartilage cells were injected into the ear-shaped print.

Before implantation, the cells were allowed to grow for a few days. This ensures that the cells get the chance to form connections with each other and the actual ear tissue grows in size. After a few days, the scientists were left with a structure that closely resembles a human ear, and it should also be able to fulfill the same functions as a real ear. The same type of technique, printing a mold and then filling it up with cells, could be used for other tissues that require cartilage cells, which means that the printing technology developed by the Cornell University may have even wider implications.

Artificial ears will be especially useful for people that suffer from microtia, which is a congenital condition that deforms the external part of the ear. By transplanting the artificial ear, such patients should be able to improve their hearing, the scientists think. Additionally, the printed organ may be useful for patients that lost their ear, for example due to cancer or head trauma.

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