3D Printed Ears

Part 1 of Total 3D News’ ongoing project: “3D Printing the Human Body

Ears are one of the most prominent features of the human body – for while we may not specifically focus on them very often, any variation in their look is often an immediate draw for the eye.

As such, the need for prosthetic ears – whether a person has lost their ear or somehow had it damaged – is both an aesthetic and deeply personal issue.

Luckily, some of the first steps towards achieving this end have been made at China’s Hangzhou Dianzi University. Building their own living tissue 3D printer – dubbed the Regenovo – the researchers at Hangzhou Dianzi are already able to print a four to five inch cartilage sample in the shape of a human ear.

While it is probably going to take ten to twenty more years before we see these 3D printed ears making their way onto people’s bodies, the process provides for a 90% living cell survival rate. Meaning that 9 out of 10 of the cells used to print the cartilage ears actually survive the process entirely intact. Moreover, as of August 15th, 2013, the researchers at Hanzhou Dianzi have been able to keep the living tissue alive  for up to four months.

“It’s different from traditional 3D printing—to print a cup, we have to fill up the object with our material. But this method doesn’t work in cells because a cell contains blood vessels and has tissue space. We have to make sure to spare enough space for them to grow.”
Xu Mingen, Regenovo’s Developer

So while 3D printed ears – and the technology that produced them – are still in their infancy, there is the distinct possibility that one day in the near-future these ears could be grafted directly onto a patient’s living tissue.

But the Hangzhou Dianzi University aren’t the only ones in search of 3D printed ears either. In fact, in May 2013, doctors at Princeton University managed to print a ear made of hydrogel and calf cells, complete with an integrated electronic antenna. The idea: make an ear from living cells that also functions like an ear.

So while 3D printed ears are still in their very early phases – far from being ready to use on actual human bodies – the technology is already showing a lot of promise. But as these methods continue to evolve and advance, its seems like it is just a matter of time until these science fiction concepts become an everyday reality.

Finally, here is a video of the revolutionary Regenovo in action: