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Grown inside 3D-printed molds: new ears for children

Two years later, these lab-grown ears are doing fine

The implanted ear continues to grow.
Image: Courtesy EBioMedicine

For the first time, scientists in China have created new ears for five children using their own cells grown in a 3D-printed mold.

All five kids, between the ages of six and nine, were born with one underdeveloped ear, a condition called microtia. Though kids with microtia do tend to have hearing loss in their deformed ear, most of the time they can hear fairly well out of the other one. So, the new ears were grown for cosmetic reasons. First, the scientists made a 3D-printed model of the children’s healthy ears, then reversed it to make a mold of what the other ear would look like. Next, they collected cartilage cells from the deformed ear and grew them in the biodegradable mold for three months. Finally, they grafted the new ears, including the mold, onto the children, according to a study published in the journal EBioMedicine.

The idea of using someone’s own cells to grow replacement parts has been around for a long time, Tessa Hadlock, chief of facial plastic and reconstructive surgery at Massachusetts Eye and Ear in Boston, told CNN. (Hadley was not involved in the research.) It’s been done in animals before, she says. In humans, the risk is that you have to help the cells grow, but if they grow too much, it’ll create a cancerous mass. For now, the children in the study remain healthy, according to the researchers.

Most of the ears were grafted onto the children two years ago, but one kid got his new ear a few months ago. This long-term follow-up is crucial because it shows that the ears have not been rejected by the body and that the cartridge continues to grow inside the biodegradable mold. Photos show that, over time, the implanted ear becomes more and more detailed.

The method is complicated, expensive, and would be hard to do on a large scale, so it’s unlikely to become widespread. Still, being able to grow cartilage cells to fix this ear deformity has been a goal for a long time. We’re not quite at the point where we have ears for all, but it’s a nice step forward.