SCIENTISTS can quickly create an ear by using 3D computer printers in a process that could be put to use for humans within three years, it has been claimed.
An artificial ear created in this way could be used for patients who have suffered accidents or assaults and for the hundreds of children born each year missing one or both ears.
At present, the only reliable method to replace an ear is to take a piece of rib bone and carve and mould it into an ear shape before covering it with skin grafts.
Scientists behind the latest research in New York hope the new technique will be less invasive and look more natural.
Bio-engineers at Cornell University's medical college devised a method using 3D computer images of the ear and created collagen moulds to form a scaffold, which was then covered with cells taken from a calf's ear. The ears were grown in the laboratory ready to be implanted.
It was found that, once implanted, the ears grew their own cartilage, which was "robust". In trials, the ears were implanted under the skin of rats but scientists hope the technique can be used for humans within three years.
Their findings were published in the journal 'Public Library of Science One'.
Lawrence Bonassar, associate professor of biomedical engineering at the university, a co-author of the study, said: "This is such a win-win for both medicine and basic science, demonstrating what we can achieve when we work together. It takes half a day to design the mould, a day or so to print it, 30 minutes to inject the gel, and we can remove the ear 15 minutes later. We trim the ear and then let it culture for several days in nourishing cell culture media before it is implanted."
Other teams around the world are working on similar techniques.
A variety of human body parts have already been constructed in the laboratory and implanted in humans. Scientists have made windpipes, bladders and miniaturised livers.
The 3D printing technique has also been used to make one-off replacement body parts, including a jaw bone.
David Gagult, an ear reconstruction surgeon at the Portland private hospital in central London, warned that there might be difficulties when trying to insert the new ear scaffold into the tight skin of the head.
He said the skin on the back of a rat was baggy and so covering the ear scaffold with skin was easy. There might also be problems with rejection, but they could be overcome by using patients' own cells, he said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)