We’ve seen cancer patients and car crash victims receive 3D printed ears after losing an existing ear, but what about children who were born with an ear that hadn’t completely developed yet? Microtia, which means ‘little ear’ in Greek, is a congenital condition where the external ear is either underdeveloped or not developed at all when a child is born. It occurs in about one out of every 9,000 children, and in addition to the ear looking pretty different, children with microtia often suffer hearing loss as a result of sound not being able to efficiently penetrate into the inner ear.
3D printing technology has been very helpful in treating the condition: 3Dynamic Systems developed some innovative biomaterials for reconstructive surgery, and Ken Stewart, a plastic surgeon with the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh, Scotland, uses 3D scanners to help make accurate, 3D printed models of ears, which are used to manufacture patient-specific implants. Stewart is currently working with two young microtia patients, and using 3D technology to give them new ears, and help them hear out of their affected ears for the first time.9-year-old Anya Storie was born with an undeveloped right ear, and has long hoped for an operation or procedure that would allow her to have a normal ear.
In addition to her microtia affecting her hearing, Anya’s mother, Aurea, explains that the condition also made Anya embarrassed about how her ear looked.
Storie, from South Lanarkshire, said, “At the beginning when I heard about it I was excited and scared at the same time. I’ve been wanting one for quite a long time.”
“It would be quite traumatic in the mornings before she had to go to school. At gym the girls usually wear their hair up when they have long hair and we would have an argument most mornings about that.”
Charlotte Richardson, age 10, experienced the same issues at school.
“When I was younger I was sensitive about my ear. If someone called it tiny or small I’d get really angry. It hurt my feelings,” Richardson said.
Stewart and the Royal Hospital for Sick Children team created a perfect template of each girl’s working ears, using a 3D scanner and printer. The template was then used as a model, so Stewart could make a replacement ear for each girl, using cartilage taken from their ribs.
This is a much better option than the synthetic materials developed a few decades ago, which often caused infections, and the painful reconstructive surgical procedures that were developed almost 100 years ago. With Stewart’s newly devised 3D printing process, each of these young patients will have a total of three operations: the first will be to fit the structure of the new ear beneath the skin of the side of their head. The replacement ear will be moved into position in a second operation, once the skin has conformed to the first procedure. Finally, a third operation will open the ear canal up, so the patients will be able to hear.
Stewart said, “It’s a lovely, special thing to do and it’s a great artistic endeavour.”
Having already had the first operation, Storie is well on her way to being able to hear out of her new, normal-looking ear…and going through a typical rite of passage for girls that she’s been unable to experience with just one ear.
“I don’t know what it’s going to be like, as I haven’t heard through it before. But I’m really excited,” said Storie.”After the last operation I will be able to get my ears pierced. My friends have seen my new ear already and they said it looks nice.”
Richardson, who’s also excited to have the chance to wear earrings in both her ears, fondly remembers when she learned that it would soon be possible.
“One of the best things was knowing that I could actually wake up in the morning knowing I could have a new ear,” Richardson said.
While this series of operations has been life-changing for Storie and Richardson, Stewart and other surgeons aren’t satisfied yet. The ultimate goal is to be able to grow an entirely new ear, which would negate the process of removing cartilage from young patients’ rib cages to build ears.
Stewart explained, “We’re also doing some work with the Centre for Regenerative Medicine at Edinburgh University. Ultimately what we want to do us use stem cells to grow the ear in a lab and implant that.”
3D bioprinting is a rapidly expanding field, and we’ve actually seen a case where 3D printing technology was used to grow an ear on a man’s arm, which was later attached to his head, to replace the ear he’d lost in an accident. So Stewart’s goal is not too far-fetched.
Share your thoughts in the Microtia forum at 3DPB.com.[Source: STV]
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