Lab-Grown Ear

Scientists used a titanium wire framework to help ears made from collagen and sheep cartilage cells maintain their shape.

Aug 1, 2013
Kate Yandell

T. CERVANTES ET AL.Researchers have fabricated an artificial ear from titanium wire, bovine collagen, and cells from sheep, according to a paper published yesterday (July 31) in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

Ear reconstructions today are done using cartilage harvested from patients’ rib cages or polymer implants. But these materials have not always achieved the flexibility of real ears, nor have they consistently held their shape.

To build a better ear, the researchers 3-D printed an ear-shaped structure and used it to make a mold. They then built an ear-shaped support system from titanium wire, poured cow collagen into the mold, and embedded the wire within the collagen. Finally, they seeded the ear-shaped scaffold with cartilage cells from sheep. The researchers embedded their synthetic ears under the skin of rats and let them grow for 12 weeks, allowing the cartilage cells to build their own extracellular matrix.

Thomas Cervantes, a surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital and an author of the study, was pleased with the results: “One—we were able to keep the shape of the ear, after 12 weeks of growth in the rat,” he told BBC News. “And then secondly, we were also able to keep the natural flexibility of the cartilage.”

He said he hoped to do trials of the ears in humans 5 years from now using cartilage cells from human patients’ own tissues rather than from sheep.

Earlier this year, researchers at Cornell University unveiled their own attempt at engineering ears, in their case using collagen and cow cartilage cells.