The patient, from Mexico, was born with microthia, a rare congenital defect that makes the orifice or outer part of the ear smaller and deformed (it can also affect the ear’s hearing). With further research, company officials say the technology could be used to create many more replacement body parts, including spinal discs, nasal, knee meniscus, rotator cuff and lumpectomy reconstructive tissues. Further down the road, they said, 3-D printing could create even more complex vital organs such as the liver, kidneys and pancreas.
“It’s very exciting, sometimes I have to be in a bit of a mood,” said Dr. Arturo Bonilla, a pediatric ear restoration surgeon in San Antonio who performed the woman’s implant surgery. The trial was funded by 3DBio Therapeutics, but Dr. Bonilar has no financial stake in the company. “If everything goes according to plan, the way it is done will revolutionize,” he said.
James Yatridis, head of a spinal bioengineering laboratory at the Icon School of Medicine in Mount Sinai, said other 3-D printed tissue implants were in the pipeline, but he was not aware of any other products tested in clinical trials.
“The 3-D ear implant was then a testament to the idea of evaluating biological compatibility, and shape matching and shape retention in living humans,” said Dr. Yatridis.
Nevertheless, the outer part of the ear is a relatively simple accessory that is more cosmetic than functional, says Dr. Feinberg of Carnegie Mellon. He warned that the path to the hard organs – such as the liver, kidneys, heart and lungs – was still a long way off. “Just going from one ear to a spinal disc is a pretty big jump, but it’s more realistic if you get an ear,” he said.
The 3-D printing production process creates a solid, three-dimensional object from a digital model. The technology usually involves the accumulation of material in thin layers to make a computer-controlled printer the exact shape of the object.