Chinese scientists have given new ears to 5 children that were grown in a laboratory using their own cells combined with a 3D-printed biodegradable mould.
The children, aged between six and nine years, were all born with a defect in one ear known as microtia, a condition in which the external ear is small and not formed properly.
The Chinese procedure, the first of its kind, helped the scientists do something that others involved in regenerative medicine have long been trying to achieve – growing a human organ in a lab that is fully compatible on being surgically implanted.
The scientists, who published their findings in the journal EBioMedicine this month, created reversed 3D-printed replicas of the children’s normal ears and used the replicas to make biodegradable moulds full of tiny holes.
They then collected cartilage cells called chondrocytes from the children’s deformed ears and used them to grow ear-shaped cartilage with the moulds in a lab.
After three months, the ears grown in the lab were grafted on the children. Some of the children also underwent a procedure in which the skin of the deformed ears was stretched so that it could accommodate the mould.
The first surgery was performed two-and-a-half years ago and the latest two months ago. So far, the ears have not been rejected by the body and cartilage has continued to grow within the mould, resulting in more natural-looking ears. The shape and size of the new ear matched that of the normal ear.
The scientist wrote, “In summary, we were able to successfully design, fabricate, and regenerate patient-specific external ears…Nevertheless, further efforts remain necessary to eventually translate this prototype work into routine clinical practices.”