3-D printer makes model of human ear

March 1, 2013 3:04:45 PM PST
Three-dimensional printers which gradually layer materials to form shapes are widely used in manufacturing. So why not print out body parts?

It's not only possible, it's reality. It's what's happening right now in the hot new field of tissue regeneration

It sounds like a printer that might be running a bit slow. And there is good reason. The ink coming from this device is actually alive and it's printing up a precisely modeled replacement ear.

"That gel we are printing out of the printer or using in the mold actually contains living cells," said Larry Bonassar, Ph.D., biomedical engineer, at Cornell University. "So what is coming out of the printer is alive...so we can directly implant it into a patient or we can incubate it in a lab for awhile before it gets implanted."

This work being done at Cornell is a first step toward one day growing customized ears for children born with malformed ones, or people who lose one to accident or disease.

"The reason an ear is a good demonstration of this technology is because it has a very complicated shape, kinda complicated mechanics," said Bonassar. "As well, you ear is remarkably durable and flexible, but still stiff enough to hold its shape."

A 3-D scan of a human ear produces a detailed computer model and then a polymer containing living cells is used to make a soft mold of the ear. That's then injected with a collagen gel. In a few weeks cartilage is grown to replace the collagen. By three months there's a flexible workable ear.

"If you can make a technology that can be used by tens of thousands of people to make millions of implants, then you can really affect a lot of people's lives," said Bonassar.

The replacement ears are still being evaluated.

Researchers say this is just the beginning of what 3-D biomedical printing can accomplish in the years ahead.