Chinese scientists say they have accomplished something that’s long been a goal in the world of regenerative medicine – giving someone a new, perfectly compatible ear, freshly grown in the lab. What makes the feat a world-first is that the ear was made using that person’s very own cells.
The experimental procedure was performed on five children, ages six to 10 years, with an underdeveloped ear, a condition known as microtia. Currently, the only cosmetic treatments available involve grafting on a synthetic ear, which can be rejected by the body, or an ear roughly sculpted out of rib cartilage by a surgeon, which often looks less than natural.
The researchers created a 3D-printed replica of each child’s normal ear (obtained via a CT scan), but with the dimensions reversed. This replica was then used to create a mould littered with tiny holes and made out of biodegradable material. The mould was filled in with cartilage cells taken from the children’s deformed ear that were further grown in the lab. Over 12 weeks, the cells started to grow into the shape of the mould, replacing bits of it that had already disintegrated. This part-ear/part-mould was then grafted onto the children, some of whom required their own 12-week long procedure that stretched out their skin wide enough to accommodate it.
The first surgery was performed two and a half years ago on a six-year-old, with the latest operation taking place just two months ago. So far, the ears have stayed put, with no signs of the body inadvertently absorbing or rejecting the material. Cartilage has also continued to gradually replace the mould, resulting in a more natural-looking ear over time. The team’s results were published in the journal EBioMedicine.
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