Woman in US receives 3D printed ear made from her own cells

3D printed ear for transplant
The 20-year-old suffers from a rare congenital deformity where her left outer ear was absent. Photo credit: Getty Images

A young woman born with a rare birth defect affecting her right ear has received a 3D printed transplant made from her own cells.

The manufacturer, 3DBio Therapeutics, said the new ear was printed to exactly match the 20-year-old's left ear. Because it was made from her own cells, it was less likely to be rejected by the body than other transplants.

The transplant took place in March, and will continue to regenerate cartilage tissue, ensuring it has the look and feel of a natural ear, the company said.

The Mexican woman was born with microtia, a rare congenital deformity where one or both outer ears are absent or underdeveloped. It affects around 1500 babies born annually in the US.

The New York Times reported the transplant was described by independent experts as "a stunning advance in the field of tissue engineering".

Adam Feinberg, a professor of biomedical engineering and materials science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, said it was "definitely a big deal".

"It shows this technology is not an 'if' anymore, but a 'when'," he told the newspaper.

Dr Arturo Bonilla, who carried out the transplant and has treated thousands of children with microtia, said he was "inspired" by what the technology could mean for patients and their families.

"This study will allow us to investigate the safety and aesthetic properties of this new procedure for ear reconstruction using the patient's own cartilage cells," he said.

"The implant requires a less invasive surgical procedure than the use of rib cartilage for reconstruction. We also expect it to result in a more flexible ear than reconstruction with a PPE (porous polyethylene) implant. 

"It is designed to provide a better solution for patients born with microtia by transforming their appearance and building their confidence and self-esteem."

Dr Daniel Cohen, CEO and co-founder of 3D Bio, said it was a "truly historic" moment for patients as well as the whole regenerative medicine field.

"We are beginning to demonstrate the real-world application of next-generation tissue engineering technology," he said.

"It is the culmination of more than seven years of our company's focused efforts to develop a uniquely differentiated technology platform meeting the FDA's requirements for therapeutic manufacturing of reconstructive implants."

Cohen said the technology has the potential to be opened up in other areas of the body in the future.

"Our initial indications focus on cartilage in the reconstructive and orthopaedic fields including treating complex nasal defects and spinal degeneration," he continued.

"We look forward to leveraging our platform to solve other high impact, unmet medical needs like lumpectomy reconstruction and eventually expand to organs."

However, that may be some way away according to experts.

The external part of the ear is more cosmetic than functional and therefore is relatively simple to work on, Feinberg said.

He told the New York Times that the path towards solid organs, like hearts, lungs and livers, was a long one.

"Just going from an ear to a spinal disc is a pretty big jump, but it's more realistic if you've got the ear."