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Cornell University Scientist Grow an Ear Using 3-D Printers

Update Date: Feb 21, 2013 10:39 PM EST

The advent of 3-D printers have opened up a whole world of possibilities, including the medical field where a team at Cornell University have created an artificial ear that looks and acts like a natural ear.

In a study published Wednesday in PLOS One, Cornell biomedical engineers and Weill Cornell Medical College physicians described how 3-D printing and injectable molds, comprised of living cells, have been used to create a natural looking ear.

Cornell University researchers hope the artificial ear will aid children with a deformity called microtia which results in an intact inner ear but an external ear that fails to develop fully, which leads to hearing loss.

"A bioengineered ear replacement like this would also help individuals who have lost part or all of their external ear in an accident or from cancer," co-lead author Jason Spector, a plastic surgeon at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, said in a statement.

"This is such a win-win for both medicine and basic science, demonstrating what we can achieve when we work together," noted co-lead author Lawrence Bonassar, associate professor of biomedical engineering.

According to the statement, Bonassar and his team first created a digitized 3-D image of a human subject's ear and then converted the image into a digitized "solid" ear.

Once the mold was ready, they injected it with collagen which was made of rat tails, and then added 250 million cartilage cells from the ears of cows. The researchers likened the consistency of the high-density gel to that of Jell-O.

Bonassar noted that the whole process is quick. "It takes half a day to design the mold, a day or so to print it, 30 minutes to inject the gel, and we can remove the ear 15 minutes later. We trim the ear and then let it culture for several days in nourishing cell culture media before it is implanted."

Spector added that if and when the ears prove safe and usable, it could be possible to implant one in a human in as early as 2016.

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