February 21, 2013

3-D printer used in making ear

Scientists hope the new technology will offer a faster way to grow lifelike body parts.

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Printing out body parts? Cornell University researchers showed it's possible by creating a replacement ear using a 3-D printer and injections of living cells.

Lawrence Bonassar
click image to enlarge

Cornell engineer Lawrence Bonassar holds the scaffolding for an ear his laboratory is creating using a 3-D printer and cells that produce cartilage.

The Associated Press

The work reported Wednesday is a first step toward one day growing customized new ears for children born with malformed ones or people who lose one to accident or disease.

It's part of the hot field of tissue regeneration, trying to regrow all kinds of body parts. Scientists hope using 3-D printing technology might offer a speedier method with more lifelike results.

If it pans out, "this enables us to rapidly customize implants for whoever needs them," said Cornell biomedical engineer Lawrence Bonassar, who co-authored the research published online in the journal PLoS One.

This first-step work crafted a human-shaped ear that grew with cartilage from a cow.

Study co-author Dr. Jason Spector of Weill Cornell Medical Center is working on the next step -- how to cultivate enough of a child's remaining ear cartilage in the lab to grow an entirely new ear.

Wednesday's report is "a nice advancement," said Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, who wasn't involved in the new research.

Three-dimensional printers, which gradually layer materials to form shapes, are widely used in manufacturing. For medicine, Atala said the ear work is part of broader research that shows "the technology now is at the point where we can in fact print these three-dimensional structures and they do become functional over time."

Today, people who need a new ear often turn to prosthetics that require a rod to fasten to the head. For children, doctors sometimes fashion a new ear from the stiffer cartilage surrounding ribs, but it's a big operation. Spector said the end result seldom looks completely natural. Hence the quest to use a patient's own cells to grow a replacement ear.

The Cornell team started with a 3-D camera that rapidly rotates around a child's head for a picture of the existing ear to match. It beams the ear's geometry into a computer, without the mess of a traditional mold or the radiation if CT scans were used to measure ear anatomy.

From that image, the 3-D printer produced a soft mold of the ear. Bonassar injected it with a special collagen gel that's full of cow cells that produce cartilage -- forming a scaffolding. Over the next few weeks, cartilage grew to replace the collagen. At three months, it appeared to be a flexible and workable outer ear, the study concluded.

Now Bonassar's team can do the process even faster by using the living cells in that collagen gel as the printer's "ink." The 3-D technology directly layers the gel into just the right ear shape for cartilage to cover, without having to make a mold first.

The next step is to use a patient's own cells in the 3-D printing process.

 

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