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A 3D printed human ear has been successfully transplanted in a world-first

Using the patient’s own cells

An American biotech company has just announced that they have successfully transplanted a 3D printed human ear into a patient, initially reported by The New York Times. The company, Queens-based 3DBio Therapeutics, printed the ear using the patient's own cells.

The patient in question, a 20-year-old, was born with a congenital disorder that left her with a small and misshapen right ear. According to experts in the field, this is a stunning development and exciting news in the realm of tissue engineering.

The 3D-printed ear was made in a mold that precisely matched the woman’s left ear, according to 3DBio Therapeutics. Once completed, the ear was then successfully transplanted on the patient's head in March of this year. The ear will continue to regenerate cartilage tissue over time, giving it the look and feel of a natural ear, the company said.

“It’s definitely a big deal,” Adam Feinberg told the New York times in an interview.

Dr. Feinberg is a professor of biomedical engineering and materials science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and a co-founder of FluidForm, one of 3DBio's industry competitors.

“It shows this technology is not an ‘if’ anymore, but a ‘when,’” he said.

News of the successful operation was made in a press release by 3DBio on the 2nd of June 2022.

Other than that information, little else has been disclosed about the procedure. This is for obvious reasons, as the technology and techniques are something of an industry secret. 

Are 3D printed organs safe?

In short, it is too early to really tell. 

However, the 3DBio said that federal regulators had reviewed the trial design and set strict manufacturing standards and that the data would be published in a medical journal when the study was complete in due course.

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The company's larger clinical trial includes around 11 patients and is still ongoing at the time of writing. To this end, it is still very possible that transplants will be rejected by the patients' bodies or lead to other, as yet unforeseen, health complications. 

However, since the cells used to make the organs (like the ear question) are from the patients' own bodies, the chances of rejection or complications should be slim. 

3DBio was first founded around seven years ago, and the recent successful transplant is but one of several breakthroughs in the field over the last few years. 

In January, for example, surgeons in Maryland managed to transplant a genetically modified pig’s heart into a 57-year-old man with heart disease. This enabled the patient to extend their lives another few vital and priceless months. 

There are also other developments outside of using animal organs or 3D printed ones that would prove useful. For example, other scientists are developing techniques that could, it is hoped, extend the life of donor organs, so they do not go to waste.

This is showing some promising results, with Swiss doctors recently able to transplant a human liver into a patient that had been perfectly preserved for three days.

All very exciting, but for the 3D-printed ear recipient, her concerns are much closer to home. 

The patient, Alexa, told the New York Times that she was excited about the new ear -- even though it was still covered by a bandage. Children with the same disorder, called microtia, often find themselves the subject of teasing from peers, which can lead to anxiety, depression, and hostility. 

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Thankfully, Alexa informed The Times, that her ear never really bothered her until her teens, when she naturally became more self-conscious about her appearance.

“You care a little more for your image when you’re a teenager,” she said. “Some people said things that were not thoughtful, and it started bothering me.”

Up until her recent operation, Alexa had "perfected" the art of simply covering her ear with her long hair, and most people could never really tell. But now, she said, she is looking forward to having fun with her hair, putting it back in pigtails or up in a bun.

“I think my self-esteem will go up,” she said.

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