Scientists use 3-D printing to help grow an ear

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WASHINGTON -- Printing out body parts? Cornell University researchers showed it's possible, creating a replacement ear using a 3-D printer and injections of living cells.

The work reported yesterday is a first step toward one day growing customized new ears for children born with malformed ones, or people who lose one to accident or disease.

It's part of the hot field of tissue regeneration, trying to regrow all kinds of body parts. Scientists hope using 3-D printing technology might offer a speedier method with more lifelike results. If it pans out, "this enables us to rapidly customize implants for whoever needs them," said Cornell biomedical engineer Lawrence Bonassar, who co-authored the research published online in the journal PLoS One.

This first-step work crafted a human-shaped ear that grew with cartilage from a cow, easier to obtain than human cartilage, especially the uniquely flexible kind that makes up ears. Study co-author Dr. Jason Spector of Weill Cornell Medical Center is working on the next step: how to cultivate enough of a child's remaining ear cartilage in the lab to grow an entirely new ear that could be implanted in the right spot.

Three-dimensional printers, which gradually layer materials to form shapes, are widely used in manufacturing. For medicine, said Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, the ear work is part of broader research that shows "the technology now is at the point where we can in fact print these 3-dimensional structures and they do become functional over time."

Today, people who need a new ear often turn to prosthetics that require a rod to fasten to the head. For children, doctors sometimes fashion a new ear from the stiffer cartilage surrounding ribs, but it's a big operation. Spector said the result seldom looks completely natural. Hence the quest to use a patient's own cells to grow a replacement ear. -- AP

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