The patient, who’s from Mexico, was born with microtia, a rare birth defect that causes the auricle, or external a part of the ear, to be small and malformed (it can also affect hearing within the ear). With more research, company executives said, the technology could possibly be used to make many other substitute body parts, including spinal discs, noses, knee menisci, rotator cuffs and reconstructive tissue for lumpectomies. Further down the road, they said, 3-D printing could even produce much more complex vital organs, like livers, kidneys and pancreases.
“That is so exciting, sometimes I actually have to temper myself slightly bit,” said Dr. Arturo Bonilla, a pediatric ear reconstructive surgeon in San Antonio who performed the lady’s implant surgery. The trial was funded by 3DBio Therapeutics, but Dr. Bonilla doesn’t have any financial stake in the corporate. “If the whole lot goes as planned, this can revolutionize the way in which this is completed,” he said.
James Iatridis, who heads a spine bioengineering laboratory at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, said that other 3-D printed tissue implants were within the pipeline, but that he was unaware of another products being tested in a clinical trial.
“The three-D ear implant is then a proof of concept to judge biocompatibility, and shape matching and shape retention, in living people,” Dr. Iatridis said.
Still, the external a part of the ear is a comparatively easy appendage that’s more cosmetic than functional, said Dr. Feinberg of Carnegie Mellon. He cautioned that the trail toward solid organs — like livers, kidneys, hearts and lungs — was still an extended one. “Just going from an ear to a spinal disc is a reasonably large jump, nevertheless it’s more realistic when you’ve got the ear,” he said.
The three-D printing manufacturing process creates a solid, three-dimensional object from a digital model. The technology generally involves a computer-controlled printer depositing material in thin layers to create the precise shape of the thing.