Friday, May 3rd, 2013
The first few times I saw news reports about 3D printing, I thought it was pretty ingenious. People could use it to build 3D models of vases or even, a 3D model of a fetus from an ultrasound.
But now, I’m completely blown away by what it can do. This past weekend on CBS News Sunday Morning, they showcased how scientists are using 3D printers and living cells to craft new human tissue. So far, they’ve used it to build tumors from cancer patients’ biopsied tumors, which will enable them to easily grow several copies of the tumor and test out a number of different treatments at once, to figure out what’s going to work best on each patient’s particular cells. But the other application they showcased is the one that intrigued me more: They grew a human ear.
You see, my daughter was born with microtia, a birth defect that impacts her ear. She has a normal ear on her left, but her right ear is small and misshapen, and there’s no ear canal. So far, it hasn’t impacted her life too much—she hears pretty well (better if she actually wears her hearing aid), she has both of her ears pierced, and other than a few questions from her classmates, it’s pretty much a nonissue for her. We love her “special ear,” and she knows it’s just something unique about her. But I know how kids can be cruel, and I worry that as she hits the teen years, she’s going to become self-conscious about it.
Right now, there are two ways people can replace a microtic ear with one that looks more like a traditional ear. They can get a prosthetic, which looks more natural but usually has to be removed for bathing, swimming and sleep. Or they can go through a series of several painful surgeries to sculpt a new ear, using either Medpor, a medical-grade artificial scaffolding, or a rib graft. But the results of the plastic surgery aren’t always great, and I’ve seen too many ears that look “off.” I wouldn’t subject my daughter to that without her being totally on board with it.
But with the 3D printing, a sample of cells could be cultured, then “printed” out in the exact shape of her ear. She could have a brand new ear in a few weeks—and it would simply be one surgery to remove the microtic ear and place the new ear beneath the skin.
What’s even cooler is this new bionic ear that someone else created, an amalgam of the 3D printing using living tissue and technology. So maybe she can skip the hearing aid and hear on her own, through her new bionic ear.
I’m already dreaming up ways that this technology could eventually be used—to grow new body parts for people who lost a finger or a hand. To build new kidneys or a new lung for someone in need of a transplant. To repair a broken spinal cord. But right now, I’m just focusing on that miraculous homegrown ear.
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Image: Lawrence Bonassar, associate professor of biomedical engineering at Cornell University, with an artificial ear grown using 3D printing, by Lindsay France/Cornell University