US Army Doctors Grow Ear in Soldier's Arm for Transplant

Plastic surgeons from the U.S. Army have successfully reconstructed and transplanted an ear onto a soldier after it was damaged in a car crash.
Jessica Miley

A private in the U.S. Army has undergone a radical new plastic surgery treatment to replace her left ear lost in a car accident.

Two years ago private Shamika Burrage survived a violent single-vehicle car accident that resulted in the loss of her entire left ear. Now plastic surgeons working with the U.S. Army have successfully completed a new kind of ear transplant and reconstruction.

Cartlidge from Burrage’s ribs was used to first build a new ear which was then placed under the skin of Burrage’s right forearm. 

Ear grown on arm successfully placed on head

It was left to grow there for a few months until it was finally ready for placement on her head. "The whole goal is that by the time she's done with all this, it looks good, it's senate, and in five years if somebody doesn't know her they won't notice," Lt. Col. Owen Johnson III, the chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at William Beaumont Army Medical, where the procedure was held, said in a statement.

"As a young active-duty Soldier, they deserve the best reconstruction they can get." While it is the first time doctors with the U.S. Army have pulled off the procedure, the reconstruction method was developed ten years ago by Dr. Patrick Byrne, the director of the Division of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. 

Using rib cartilage to reform ears has been occurring since the since the 1920s. It is often used as a method to treat microtia, a congenital deformity where the outer ear fails to fully develop. 

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But the procedure and technology have radically improved in recent decades. The biggest leap forward has been the refinement of microvascular free tissue transfer. This is when tissue from one body part is crafted to use as a replacement for another part. The part needs to undergo neovascularization or the formation of new blood tissues. 

The new procedure sees doctors stitch the new tissue to blood vessels to establish proper circulation. “It’s like a transplant on one’s self,” says Byrne. “99 percent of the time you get a healthy, functioning tissue in a new area.” 

Forearm provides perfect conditions for ear growth

In the case of the Burrage’s new ear neovascularization was produced by the forearm. The forearm is a great location for this type of reconstruction and growth because you need both an artery and a vein and a place on the body where the growing tissue can be protected. 

In this case, the new ear was for aesthetic reasons rather than to recover damaged hearing. But ear canal recovery is also possible says Dr. Lawrence Lustig, the chair of otolaryngology at Columbia University Medical Center. “But in instances of a very traumatic injury, it’s possible the ear canal is scarred shut. Then you would need to go back and recreate a new ear canal,” he says.