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3D printer creates artificial human ear


A Cornell researcher holds up an artificial ear created using 3D printing and injectable molds. (LINDSAY FRANCE/UNIVERSITY PHOTOGRAPHY)

Using 3D printers, medical researchers say they have created an artificial ear that looks, feels, and acts almost identically to the real thing.

The team used 3D printers to create ear molds that were then injected with living cells which, over time, grew into real cartilage.

The devices could be particularly helpful for those born with microtia, a congenital deformity that causes children to be born with an underdeveloped ear, often leading to hearing problems. 

The researchers -- a team of bioengineers and doctors at Cornell University -- digitized pictures of real human ears and used those to create a mold with a 3D printer.

The mold was injected with collagen derived from rats' tails. But it was also filled with 250 million cartilage cells from the ears of cows. Then the scientists removed the mold.

Over a period of several days, the cartilage cells grew using the collagen as a platform. While the collagen artificial ear had the texture of jello, the final ear looks and feels like the real thing, according to the reasearchers.

Artificial ears made of styrofoam usually don't look natural, according to the Cornell team, or are made of a patient's rib, which can be painful. Microtia occurs in as many as four out of every 10,000 births.

The Cornell team has previously worked on other replacement body parts made of cartilage, because unlike organs, they don't have to be linked up to the blood supply to survive.

The team says it could take less than three years until they are ready to attempt the first human implant of an artificial ear.

Kate Allen is the Star's science and technology reporter. Find her on Twitter: @katecallen.





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