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article imageOp-Ed: Want to grow an ear? 3D printing can do it for you

By Paul Wallis     Feb 23, 2013 in Technology
Sydney - 3D printing has reached a very important milestone- The printing of human prostheses. The new ballgame for reconstructive surgery is here, and it’s looking very good in more ways than one.
Sydney Morning Herald:
Cornell University researchers showed it's possible by creating a replacement ear using a 3D printer and injections of living cells.
The work reported this week is a first step toward one day growing customised new ears for children born with malformed ones, or people who lose one to accident or disease.
It's part of the hot field of tissue regeneration, trying to regrow all kinds of body parts. Scientists hope using 3D printing technology might offer a speedier method with more lifelike results.
That, ironically, is a bit of an understatement. 3D printing, using CAD-like technology, is also able to solve some of the major issues with prostheses like cumbersome fits and unnatural-looking prostheses. The fit issue is a serious problem in more than aesthetic terms. Old style prostheses were about as good as the old technology could achieve, in fact some were major achievements, but not perfect.
This new technology is actually a combination of living tissue regeneration, using the prosthesis as a scaffold for real tissue. The general idea has been around in various forms for over a decade, including the new jaw in the picture above, but this is the very important first step to complete reconstruction of living tissue.
The creation of these prints is also a lot less stressful. Instead of a CT scan, the prints are created and designed using a 3D camera to get accurate measurements. (Consider the accuracy of a DSLR camera and HD photography, which can literally be measured to individual pixels.)
From that image, the 3D printer produced a soft mould of the ear. Bonassar (From that image, the 3D printer produced a soft mould of the ear. Bonassar (Cornell biomedical engineer Lawrence Bonassar, co-author of the research) injected it with a special collagen gel that's full of cow cells that produce cartilage – forming a scaffolding. Over the next few weeks, cartilage grew to replace the collagen. At three months, it appeared to be a flexible and workable outer ear, the study concluded.
Now Bonassar's team can do the process even faster by using the living cells in that collagen gel as the printer's "ink".
Put another way, this new process has essentially reinvented and evolved the whole original idea into something much more workable and infinitely more efficient, even in theory. The rest of the process is a simple, accurate, layer-by-layer 3D print job.
The ramifications for some of the world’s most thankless, and extremely difficult reconstructive surgery are almost endless. The next phase of the 3D printing process is to use patients’ own cells in the print jobs. In effect, the reconstruction really is an authentic, almost 100% rebuild.
That could benefit millions of people in dealing with areas of tissue loss or birth defects simply, quickly and effectively. (Interestingly, this complex process is far simpler than the horrifically difficult process of attempting to use body tissue from wherever it’s available to do the same thing.)
3D printing, particularly at CAD standards, can also manage extremely fine measurements and complex structures. For example, large amounts of tissue requiring multiple structures and nerve connections, etc. could be “assembled” on a progressively grown prosthetic structure, which then turns into an almost exact living replacement of a whole section of tissue.
The Age of Miracles may not have been doing much pre-publicity, but this particular idea could be a great way of showcasing the scaffolding principle for evaluation. It could be the beginning of the solution of major surgical issues which have plagued medicine since modern surgery first began, 500 years ago. The possibilities for cosmetic surgery alone could easily fill a medical dictionary.
A lot of reconstructive surgeons will be dancing in the streets with this. Nearly a century of sheer hard labour on things like war wounds will finally get the degree of technical capacity it needs.
If you’re in your 60s, don’t give up on the idea of becoming a teenage heartthrob just yet. With a bit of coaxing and persuasion, you may yet be able to become the next Justin Bieber.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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