An Ear implant made of human cells, with the help from a 3-D printer

A 20-year-old woman who was born with a small and misshapen right ear has received a 3-D printed ear implant made from her own cells, the manufacturer had announced.

Independent experts said that the transplant, part of the first clinical trial of medical application of this technology, was a stunning advance in the field of tissue engineering.

The new ear was printed in a shape that precisely matched the woman's left ear, according to 3DBio Therapeutics, a regenerative medicine company based in New York.

The new ear, transplanted in March, will continue to regenerate cartilage tissue, giving it the look and feel of a natural ear, the company said.

''It's definitely a big deal,'' said Adam Feinberg, a professor of biomedical engineering and materials science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Dr. Feinberg, who is not affiliated with 3DBio, is a co-founder of FluidForm, a regenerative medicine company that also uses 3-D printing.

''It shows this technology is not an ''if'' anymore, but a 'when' '', he said.

The results of the woman's reconstructive surgery were announced by 3DBio on Thursday. Citing proprietary concerns, the company has not publicly disclosed the technical details of the process, making it more difficult for outside experts to evaluate.

The company said that U.S. regulators had reviewed the trial design and set strict manufacturing standards, and that the data would be published in a medical journal when the study was complete.

The clinical trial, which includes 11 patients, is still in progress, and it is possible that the transplants could fail or bring unanticipated health complications. But since the cells originated from the patient's own tissue, the new ear is not likely to be rejected by the body, doctors and company officials said.

3DBio's success, seven years in the making, is one of several recent breakthroughs in the quest to improve organ and tissue transplants.

In January, surgeons in Maryland transplanted a genetically modified pig's heart into a 57-year-old man with heart disease, extending his life by two months.

Scientists are also developing techniques to extend the life of donor organs so they do not go to waste; Swiss doctors reported this past week that a patient who received a human liver that had been preserved for three days was still healthy a year later.

The United Therapeutics Corporation, the Maryland company that provided the genetically engineered pig for the heart procedure, is also experimenting with 3-D printing to produce lungs for transplants, a spokesman said.

And scientists from the Israeli institute of Technology reported in September that they had printed a network of blood vessels, which would be necessary to supply blood to implanted tissues.

Companies have previously used 3-D printing technology to produce customfit prosthetic limbs. But the ear implant, made from a tiny glob of cells harvested from the women's misshapen ear, appears to be the first example of a 3-D printed implant made of living tissues.

The patient, who is from Mexico, was born with microtia, a rare birth defect that causes the auricle, or external part of the ear, to be small and malformed [it can also affect hearing ]. With more research, company executives said, the technology could be used to make other replacement body parts, including :

Spinal discs, noses, knee menisci, rotator cuffs and reconstructive tissue for lumpectomies.

Further down the road, they said 3-D printing could even produce far more complex vital organs, including livers, kidney and pancreases.

The World Students Society thanks author Roni Caryn Rabin.


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